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Freshman Lawmakers React To Virginia Shooting


I got the news alert on my phone about the shooting as I was sitting in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill. My producer and I were in a windowless conference room, waiting to speak to the freshmen lawmakers we've been following this year. Congressman Paul Mitchell is a Republican from Michigan, and Representative Val Demings is a Florida Democrat. He's a retired business leader turned activist. She's a former police chief.

Now, had planned to talk about the budget and investigations into Russia's meddling in the election, but that wasn't going to happen. They were just starting to process the morning's events.

VAL DEMINGS: Well, for me, it's been a tough week anyway because I represent Orlando. I represent the Pulse nightclub. It is in my district. And then to hear my colleagues, the people that I work with every day, the people who I depend on - to hear that they are under attack at a softball practice for a charity is just another example of just senseless violence.

CORNISH: Congressman Paul Mitchell, for you, were you...


CORNISH: ...Stunned, surprised?

MITCHELL: Stunned, yes. I mean we're both freshmen. It's the first time I've had to call my wife and say, no, you know, in this case, I wasn't there. It's OK. I told my staff that they're there in the tunnels today. They're not walking the streets. And called a township supervisor where my district office is, and they're putting a police car on the site - again, it's not that I think it's an organized effort but to avoid potential copycats that think, hey, you know, that's a good way to make a point.

And the other point I would make - and my oldest son is a police officer, not a detective. The point he makes - and I agree with him - is, this area has pretty strong gun control laws, had no impact whatsoever on this gentleman. The reality is the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun because in my opinion, gun control laws simply limit citizens, limit law-abiding citizens.

CORNISH: I want to come back to that in a minute. But just to give you, Congresswoman Demings, a chance because you're a former police chief.


CORNISH: I know your husband is also a sheriff.


CORNISH: And so you don't look so much surprised as you have a look of resolve. But personally, do you - are you scared ever?

DEMINGS: This is an issue that I have been working on a long time, and that's to keep guns out of the hands of bad people who shouldn't have them.

CORNISH: But is that where your mind goes first? Like, did you guys call back to your offices and say...


CORNISH: ...We need more security?

DEMINGS: No, certainly...

CORNISH: Did you...

DEMINGS: No, no. The first concern is, are our colleagues OK? That's my very first concern. That's what I did first. I wanted to make sure that, you know - get all the information I could.

But I do want to go back to something that my colleague said about, you know, repeating the NRA statement about the answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Let me just remind everyone here that the Capitol Police were on scene, and Lord knows there's no question about them being good guys with guns. But I think we do have a responsibility to make sure that they - as they protect us, that we do everything we can to protect our first responders.

MITCHELL: Excuse me. It's not the NRA statement. I don't work for the NRA. And...

DEMINGS: Neither do I.

MITCHELL: Let's be fair about it. My son's a police officer. That's his comment about what he believes on it, and I support him on that. And the idea that somehow reciprocity will threaten the Capitol Police - I have a great deal of support from the police officers in my district, and they believe that, frankly, gun control doesn't work. Now, we're probably never going to agree on it.

DEMINGS: No, I don't think we will on that.

MITCHELL: But that won't solve today. Even the debate won't solve what happened today. It won't solve what happened in Orlando. The reality is is we have to have that debate.

DEMINGS: I totally disagree with that.

MITCHELL: And we have to have it...

DEMINGS: But I think we do need to stay focused on our colleagues, their staff and the people who are responsible for protecting us, making sure that they're safe.

CORNISH: They went back and forth like this for a while - a debate about gun violence and whether government can do anything about it - background checks, better mental health support.

MITCHELL: You can't fix that through regulation. Now, there's a need for mental health treatment, Lord knows, in this country. It's inadequate. But we can't fix that through, let's have another regulation in the law and see if we can get people to stop doing that.

DEMINGS: I think we can.


DEMINGS: I'll spend every day I'm here on Capitol Hill trying to do just that...

MITCHELL: And as long as we're in the majority, it will never pass.

DEMINGS: ...Keeping guns out of the hands of people who should not have them.

CORNISH: So on a day like today, is there more of those kinds of conversations, or do you think you'll end up having a little bit of the back and forth you just had here?

DEMINGS: We start - we kind of end where we began, and that's - we want each other to be OK, you know? And even though we come with our different beliefs about things - because I think what we believe the agenda should look like here is a result of our life experiences, how we were raised, what we believe. That's a good - we're not saying that's a bad thing. That's who we are. And so we have to first of all celebrate and, as Paul said, respect each other in our different places. But we're not going to be able to solve any problems unless we are able to have the tough discussions. And that's all about relationship.

MITCHELL: We need to do what we believe is the right thing. There's some things we'll disagree on, and we'll do so on an animated basis. But it does not mean and it should not be perceived - and I tell people in the district - it shouldn't be perceived that just because we disagree, somehow we disrespect one another, we distrust one another. People laugh. I see stuff on TV and the 24-hour news, and they think there are fistfights on the floor of the House.

DEMINGS: (Laughter).

CORNISH: I think that I really appreciate you guys sitting down and talking with us in this particular moment. It does remind me that in a way, you are part of this esteemed body. And they're high-profile jobs, and they're jobs where you can be a target. As freshmen, what is the kind of moment you're taking away from this day? Is it a reminder of that?

MITCHELL: Twelve thousand - roughly, 12,200 people have ever had the honor and responsibility of representing their communities in Congress. With that comes, unfortunately, some sets of risks that I'd like to not see, I'd like to not see for my family. We don't have a mailbox. We have a P.O. box. Think about that and why is it that that's necessary in this country.

But it's not going to dissuade me from doing my job. I'll try to protect my staff and certainly my family. We need to move forward and persist with getting things done and insist that people care about one another - they may care in different ways - and be respectful.

DEMINGS: You know, I've heard the story, too, that only 12,000 - roughly 12,000 people have served. And certainly as an African-American female, when I look historically in this country, it wasn't that long ago when I would not have been allowed to walk into the Capitol. I am now a member of Congress and helping to make decisions that will hopefully make this nation a better nation.

I come to work every day trying to make a difference. How we started this day is a tragedy. It does not deter me. It does not shake me. It does not scare me. It just reminds me of how important this work is. And I'm going to make the best of every minute that I'm here.

CORNISH: Well, Congresswoman Val Demings, Democrat from Florida, Congressman Paul Mitchell, Republican of Michigan, thank you both for returning to the program. We appreciate it.

DEMINGS: Thank you.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

CORNISH: After that, they turned back to their phones and the staffers who had been waiting patiently nearby. Val Demings started to leave, but before she did, she turned back and gave Paul Mitchell a hug. He returned it.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW ORDER SONG, "CEREMONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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