Following a horrific school shooting in Florida last week that left 17 students and teachers dead, U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, thinks the national background check system for gun purchasers must be improved to prevent further tragedies from occurring.
In an interview with Talk Business & Politics, Hill repeatedly pointed to failures in the current background check system, mental health loopholes and obstacles, and the need for improvements to whistleblower pathways to lower the escalating gun violence in America.
“These are tough things and my attitude about it is we’ve been let down by our background check system this year,” he said. “We saw the Las Vegas shooter was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force, he should have been blocked from buying guns and ammunition and be in the background system. We saw this instance where this young man in Florida had been turned in to an FBI tip line and yet the FBI didn’t pursue it. I just think all of us, as parents worried about our kids, we protect our government buildings, we protect our airports, why can we not come together and find a way to adequately protect our kids at school? This should be fundamental.”
Hill said that beyond improvements in the background check system, communications lines for whistleblowers to alert authorities to potential trouble must also be strengthened. He has been supportive of more funding for mental health and restricting sales of bump stocks, a device used in the Las Vegas shooting that turned a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic one.
“I was one of the 70 members of Congress that wrote the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) administration to reconsider their regulation about the bump stock issue. I thought that was something that should be really looked at. The Obama administration had approved it and said it did not comply and we’ve asked for it to be reassessed and that, to my understanding, is still being looked at by ATF,” Hill said.
Hill also said that around the central Arkansas district he represents, he has heard from law enforcement and community leaders that more investment must be made in young adults prone to street violence.
“I would say what I’ve learned here in Little Rock is that we have to have opportunities for these young men, principally young men between 18 and 25, and get them in school, and with a job, and with an education, with hope for the future and not turn to the despair they see on the streets of Arkansas where they use a firearm to commit a drug offense,” Hill said.
“It’s going to take both our education system, our family system, the sense of morality and civility in our society to make that better. We need to enforce our laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and out of the hands of the mentally ill,” he added.
Hill addressed criticism from a recent New York Times report that he was the largest recipient among Arkansas House members of National Rifle Association money. While the NRA has only directly contributed $3,000 to Hill’s two runs for Congress, according to his campaign, it has made more than $1 million in independent expenditures for his candidacy and against his opponent in 2014.
The Second District Republican said his opponent in 2014, former North Little Rock Mayor and Democrat Pat Hays, claimed he was supported by the NRA. That claim led to the NRA’s insertion in the race, according to Hill.
He says that despite their big expenditure that boosted his candidacy, he is not influenced to vote for their agenda.
“Well, it just doesn’t. I have people who contribute to me from all over all walks of life and I do my best job representing the people of Arkansas and take my 35 years of business experience and government experience and try to make the best decisions I can on behalf of the Second Congressional District,” Hill said.
When asked if he has ever voted against an NRA-backed bill in Congress, Hill replied, “I don’t know that we’ve had that many NRA related bills while we’ve been in Congress. My view would be if I agreed with the policy, I support it and if I don’t, I don’t support it.
RUSSIA, NATIONAL SECURITY
On Friday (Feb. 16), Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller leveled a detailed indictment against 13 Russians and three Russian firms that are accused of meddling in the 2016 Presidential election. Hill said Mueller made a forceful case, but that Russian tampering in U.S. and overseas elections is nothing new.
He does advocate enforcement of existing sanctions against Russia and is open to expanding them.
“I think we’ll certainly take into account now what we’ve learned from the Special Counsel’s indictment to see if we need to go in a different direction. Cyber was certainly included in the sanction regime that we passed in August and that was referenced obviously in the indictment, the activities political and cyber related, but we could add more. I think we’ll study what’s happened politically in the indictment and see if there’s another direction that we can go in economic sanctions,” Hill said.
President Donald Trump’s administration has faced criticism for not acting more swiftly to enact sanctions against Russia that Congress overwhelmingly passed last year. Hill said he is seeing progress on Russian sanctions and expects them to be fully implemented.
“[Treasury] Secretary [Steve] Mnuchin came to our committee last week and I asked him about that. He said that they named the 200 oligarchs and senior officials required by the act by January 29th and that he expected rolling sanctions to be brought out in the next few weeks on that,” Hill said. “He said our team is the same team working on Venezuelan sanctions, North Korean sanctions, and Iran sanctions so, but he didn’t make any excuses, he says they’re at work.”
In the last week, new reporting has also highlighted the lack of security clearances at the White House with as many as 130 workers not having appropriate approval to handle classified information. Hill, who does have national security clearance, said it’s inappropriate for those Trump officials to be reviewing data.
“I’ve had concerns about the clearance process since I’ve been in Congress the past three years. There are over a million people with a top secret clearance that goes through. Some of them are approved by contractors, some of them are approved directly by the FBI or Secret Service process,” he said. “I think it’s inappropriate for people in the White House not to have their clearance completed before they get in the information flow. Naturally, I would argue, having been a White House staffer before, that if they don’t have clearance then they’re not seeing the material, that’s just not possible.”
He’s for Congressional oversight and inquiry into the matter.
“I think the committee should look into that process and see what’s being done about it, and also find out what was the delay? Is it a contractor delay, an FBI delay? Let’s get to the bottom of why those people do not have the adequate security clearance to do their job.”
You can watch Rep. Hill’s full interview in the video below.