Alabama Sen. Doug Jones delivered his maiden speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, tackling a topic that would seem anathema to most Southern Democrats — gun control.
Jones, who was elected in a special election upset last December, called for universal background checks, raising the age for purchasing semi-automatic weapons to 21 and eliminating key loopholes that could allow a gun to fall into dangerous hands.
"In the wake of yet another mass shooting, and the rising voices of young people across the country, it is our responsibility – our duty – to have a serious discussion about guns and gun safety," Jones said. "But that conversation has to be two-fold: We must acknowledge the deadly consequences that can follow when a gun is in the wrong hands, but also recognize and respect the freedom to own and enjoy guns by law-abiding citizens as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Those two concepts are not mutually exclusive."
Jones nodded to his own background as a gun-owning hunting enthusiast, and talked about how he's shared that love with his son. He also shied away from completely vilifying the National Rifle Association, which has resisted many of the proposals he and other legislators have put forward. President Trump initially seemed open to more drastic gun control measures in a bipartisan meeting earlier this month, but later backed off and has endorsed arming some school personnel, among other measures backed by the NRA.
But, Jones argued, ultimately the government's commitment to the safety of its citizens must be paramount. And while he said that some of the actions undertaken recently are positive — moving to ban bump stocks that can convert guns into automatic-style weapons, efforts to strengthen the background check system — Jones also said it's not enough. He proposed making background checks universal, including on internet sales, at gun shows and even private sales, as well as implementing three-day waiting periods.
"So while I know that guns and gun control are difficult issues for this country, I can tell you they're complicated for me, too. But as a United States Senator today, a member of the legislative branch of government, I have many obligations. And I believe that the first obligation of government is to protect its citizens," Jones said. "We spend unimaginable amounts of money fighting our enemies abroad and terrorists who would attack us at home. Yet, on many levels, we fail our children and grandchildren every morning when we pack their backpacks and send them into harm's way."
Jones said that, for him, the deadly shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people was a "tipping point regarding gun violence." That's spurred a school walkout last week and a protest, "March For Our Lives," this coming Saturday in Washington, D.C., and around the country.
A former federal prosecutor, Jones also said the activism spurred by this protest shooting reminded him of the civil rights movement and made him reflect on one his most famous case — finally bringing to justice Ku Klux Klansmen who had bombed a Birmingham church in 1963 that killed four African-American girls.
"With the convictions of two former Klansmen for the murder of those four young girls, that longed-for tidal wave of justice rose up, and hope and history rhymed in Birmingham," Jones recalled. "And for me, and I hope for you, when I walk the halls of the Senate office buildings, and come through those double doors onto the Senate floor, I realize that every day we as a collective body have that same opportunity. Whether it is for DREAMers, or voting rights, or victims of sex trafficking, or in this case, our children who are demanding action on gun violence, we have the opportunity to build that tidal wave of justice and have hope and history rhyme."
But, Jones said, in order to do so it requires "courage to seize this moment," to work across the aisle and find common ground, tamp down on divisive political rhetoric and be unafraid to do the right thing, no matter the political consequences — something that rings especially true for Jones, as he faces re-election in 2020 in a deep red state.
"We could spend days in this chamber debating the meaning and intent of the Second Amendment. We can let our nation further divide itself while more lives are lost. We can fret about what people are saying about us on social media or whether we might lose campaign contributions. We can again choose the path of inaction, in the face of yet another mass shooting, and expect different results," Jones said.
"Or, we can take another path," the Alabama senator continued. "Let us find what we can agree on, act on it, and begin to make our country a safer place. We can be reasonable here because we all want the same thing: a safer country, a safer world. At its core, the Second Amendment was an effort to protect Americans. Let us do the same."
"I don't have all the answers on how to do it, but I'm willing to work with each and every one of you to find them," Jones closed by promising. "Because that's why we were sent here – to find those answers...so that the tidal wave of justice will rise up."