Current Events

Politics: Representative Joe Kennedy III ’99

By Benjamin Gross-Loh, Alia Rizvi, Yliuz Sierra-Marin

Rep. Kennedy serves the Fourth District of Massachusetts in the United States (U.S.) House of Representatives. Over his four-year tenure in Congress, he has supported federal restrictions on gun purchases, an assault weapons ban for civilians, and an end to the gun-show loophole, which exempts private sellers and gun shows from federal laws imposed on regular vendors.

In light of mass shootings in Las Vegas, Texas, and California, Vanguard editors Benjamin Gross-Loh ’19, Yliuz Sierra-Marin, and Alia Rizvi (both ’18) interviewed two notable alumni who have worked to decrease gun violence in Massachusetts and the nation.

What is your opinion on gun control? 

The Second Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to entail an individual’s right to bear arms. Americans do have a right to a gun. However, the context of that amendment also says that you need a well-regulated militia, which is necessary to secure a free state, so it is not an absolute statement. It allows for any reasonable restrictions to be put in place, and that’s where much of this debate ends up being focused.

In the most general terms, no one thinks that people in this country individually should have a nuclear weapon or a bazooka or a tank. We know there should be limitations. The issue isn’t whether there should be a limit; the issue is where that line is drawn and what policies, procedures, and regulations can be put in place to try to make sure that an individual exercising their right does not infringe on another individual’s ability to exercise their rights. That’s the fundamental constitutional balance that our nation values.

What frustrates you most about gun control?

That we can’t actually have the debate. How this discussion always gets radicalized to a position of saying that folks who care about putting reasonable restrictions to protect against gun violence are somehow trying to take everybody’s guns away. The constitution says you can’t do that; I’m not trying to do that.

What I am trying to do is to say, “Guns are dangerous.” There are, without question, millions of millions of law-abiding gun owners that use guns as a hobby, sport, or family pastime, and that’s fine. It’s a deep and great part of our nation’s culture, and I’m not trying to change that. [But] what I think we also have to recognize is that guns, if inadequately cared for, if misused, and if they fall into the wrong hands, can be very, very dangerous. Reasonable restrictions should be put in place to secure the safety of our people.

Month after month in the U.S., and in recent years, we seem to be setting new records on the worst mass shootings we’ve experienced. That’s pretty tough to swallow, in particular when you think of the victims whose lives have been claimed while they were going to church, or during a concert, or going to school. It seems like no other rights get the absolute defense that our right to bear arms does, where nothing happens after the massacres—and we’re approaching the fifth anniversary of Sandy Hook—even if 20 little kids die, because people say, “Well, we’ve got a right to bear arms.” That assumption is a risk we as parents, families, and kids have to assume when we go to a community college, an elementary school, or a movie theatre. It’s just absurd.


What are some specific regulations related to guns that you’ve been advocating in Congress after these mass shootings?

There’s a whole wide variety of measures that I think are a good start. First off, after the most recent massacre [the Las Vegas shooting], is banning bump stocks. Even proponents of the Second Amendment have acknowledged that automatic weapons are something that are banned in this country, and bump stocks convert a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic one. Even conservative colleagues have said that those should be up for investigation and potential regulation. We disagree on how to get there—whether that should be done by legislation or through the regulatory process by the ATF [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives at the justice department]. I would prefer legislation. I think it’s pretty unconscionable that, after a mass murderer uses something that can be bought for a couple of dollars online to convert a semi-automatic weapon to kill nearly 60 people [at the Las Vegas shooting last month], those accessories are still available and legal.

You can also start with the appropriations rider that, if you can believe it, prohibits the National Health Agency [Institute] and Center for Disease Control to conduct any sort of study related to gun violence. We aren’t even allowed to study it! That should tell you a little bit about how fearful some proponents of the Second Amendment are because it says, even if you look at the public health issue, the data would potentially be so overwhelming that we don’t even want to know what it is going to say. That should be troubling.

Data should be able to drive policy, including the legal interpretation we have as to what the Second Amendment might mean. That doesn’t mean take people’s guns away—that means conduct studies to figure out what proper limitations and regulations can be put in place to ensure people do get access to weapons, if they so choose, but [not in an unlimited way]. There are no rights in this country that are unlimited. You have a right to vote unless you’re a convicted felon; you have a right to free speech, but you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre; you have a right to do a lot of things, but those rights are limited when they start to infringe on another person’s pursuit of life, liberty, or happiness. That’s what our constitution tries [for].

There’s also an assault weapons ban. It would be a good piece of policy, and there’s no way that’s happening anytime soon, but it’s something I happen to be a proponent of.

There’s also an assault weapons ban. It would be a good piece of policy, and there’s no way that’s happening anytime soon, but it’s something I happen to be a proponent of.


How can someone be an activist on this issue in their own community?

Congress is a reflection of the people that the individual members of Congress represent. Regardless of where you are on this issue, whether you’re a strong proponent of a non-fettered right to bear arms or you want strong restrictions put in place, the more people stand up and speak out on it, the greater the change that Congress is going to be able to act on your wishes. The issue with that statement is that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is an extremely powerful lobby. They’re extremely powerful because their members actually vote in Republican primaries. You look at poll after poll after poll saying there should be comprehensive background checks, we should stop private sale loopholes—these [positions] are overwhelmingly popular with much of the rest of the country, even with gun owners. [But] it turns out that when it comes to an election for federal office in Republican primaries, there are single-issue voters who go out and vote on an individual Republican candidate’s stance on gun violence, and they end up getting, at large, members that take a very expansive view on the protections put in place by the Second Amendment, and those are the ones that end up getting elected. The NRA doesn’t have hundreds of millions of members, it’s got a couple million members, but that couple million members have essentially been the driving force for the fabric of gun-violence policy for a country that is 325 million people.


What do you feel activists like John Rosenthal do well, and how do they support you?

John is a friend. We go back an awfully long way. He has been an extraordinary advocate for making the cost of gun violence personal and human, and [he has been] engaging the public in different ways about the damage that a lack of coherent gun violence policy has on society. The challenge we confront is that Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana have very different cultures when it comes to guns. The policies that we have here in Massachusetts—some of the strictest gun control laws in the country—aren’t going to fly in Texas. That’s the challenge we’ve also got with federal policies. You’ve got to find something that gets a lot of votes to pass in Congress. The challenge is finding middle ground on one of the most polarizing topics of our time.

What role do students have with respect to the issue?

It’s critically important that you guys make your voices heard. Some high school students can vote, some can’t, but your parents can. You can talk to your parents about it you can ask them what their perspective is. Students have far more influence with their parents on issues than you might think.

You can also have meetings at school and school assemblies about this so that when your parents say, “Hey, how was your day? What did you talk about?”, you can tell them what you learned about this. The fact is that we see in today’s society that gun violence can affect anybody anywhere at any time, and that’s something that unfortunately all of us have to confront. Just because you’re not old enough to vote doesn’t mean you’re not old enough to have an opinion about it or an opinion about what Congress and your community, school, or society should do about it.

I urge anybody to dive into this debate—to get yourselves educated on it, to ask your parents, your friends, and your older and younger siblings what they think about it, and then advocate for it. Get your teachers engaged in it. Make sure that everyone knows just because you’re a student you aren’t forfeiting your own voice.


Activism: John Rosenthal ’75

With the goal of raising awareness about gun policies and promoting gun safety among gun owners, John Rosenthal ’75 joined Joe Kennedy III’s uncle Michael Kennedy in 1995 to found Stop Handgun Violence. The organization has won Eastern Bank’s Wainwright Social Justice Award.


What is your position on gun control? 

I am a gun owner and a strong believer in the Second Amendment, but I do not believe that right should extend to criminals, the mentally ill, and terrorists, who can buy an unlimited number of guns—including easily concealed handguns and military-style assault weapons, the common denominator in mass shootings—without a background check or detection. I also firmly believe that we can reduce the majority of injuries and deaths from guns, without banning most guns, simply by requiring responsibility and accountability on the part of gun owners, gun dealers, manufacturers, and law enforcement.

Guns should be treated like automobiles; there is safety training, renewable licensing every six years, registration, age and speed limits, and strict manufacturing and safety standards to make cars safer. Cars are regulated, and we’ve reduced car deaths since 1920s by 75 percent. Guns are unregulated, and we lose the same number of people—36,000 to 48,000 people—each year. Gun deaths are going up, and car deaths have been steadily lessening because guns aren’t regulated and cars are.

What frustrates you most about gun control?

The lack of common-sense regulation compared to every other consumer product. For instance, the red dot at the end of a toy gun is a federal standard; toy gun makers can’t sell a gun without it so that the police know it’s a toy. But there are still no manufacturing or marketing standards for real guns. Congress has prohibited guns from being regulated as a consumer product, and Congress also gave immunity to the gun industry, so they can’t be sued even if they make guns without safety features and advertise directly to criminals. Now, we have a mass shooting every day and a high-profile mass shooting every week, and Congress doesn’t care. They prioritize blood money campaign contributions from the unregulated gun industry over public health and safety, and that is beyond unconscionable and frustrating.

Congress is doing nothing except continue to provide unrestricted access to guns until they’re held accountable by the majority of Americans that agree reasonable gun policies. Polls show 90 percent of Americans support criminal background checks for all gun sales, including private gun sales, which account for about 50 percent of all guns sold in this country every year and which are legally sold without a background check required. Seventy-five percent of Americans support a ban on assault weapons, and large capacity ammunition magazines, which are the common denominator in most mass shootings, including at Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, the Pulse nightclub, Texas, Las Vegas, and the list goes on and on. It’s a matter of time before it happens here. The sad part is that in Congress the Republicans have been bought and the Democrats intimidated into submission, and the general public thinks it’s somebody else’s problem. They don’t prioritize holding members of Congress accountable for their deadly gun policies.

You can buy a military-style assault weapon and large-capacity ammunition magazines without an ID or background check in 33 states, including New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. It’s a matter of time before these massacres start happening in states with tough gun laws, like Massachusetts. Two-thirds of all gun crimes that happen in Massachusetts happen with guns purchased in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Florida.

How is Massachusetts doing with respect to gun control?

Massachusetts has enacted the most effective gun laws in the nation, and we have the lowest gun death rate in the nation. We have reduced the rate of gun deaths by 60 percent since 1994, when I first started this effort. We have proven the NRA’s worst nightmare. We should thank Governor Baker, another BB&N alumnus, and our elected officials at the State House for their leadership. In Massachusetts, new gun violence prevention laws—without banning most guns—continue to be a model for the nation. We need to elect a president who has a backbone and will stand up to the NRA—unlike Trump, who receives over $30 million from the NRA and is owned by them. It’s critical that people hold their state legislators accountable and work to replicate the successful gun violence prevention laws and policies that have proven to work here in Massachusetts.

What would you say are first steps Congress can take with respect to gun regulation?

There are four. The first is requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales, including private gun sales and gun show sales. The second would be renewing the ban on military-style assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines. The third would be allowing the National Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is currently barred from regulating real guns, to regulate the manufacturing and marketing of firearms. Fourth, repeal the gun industry immunity law that makes it impossible to sue and hold the gun industry accountable so they make safer products and stop making assault weapons.

What country is a model for stronger gun laws?

Some number of years ago, there was a mass shooting of 35 people in Australia, and the conservative prime minister in Australia said, “That’s it, we’re going to ban assault weapons, and we are going to have a mandatory buyback of all the assault weapons in the country.” This was enacted within a week of the mass shooting in Tasmania, and there hasn’t been a mass shooting since.

We have more gun violence in America than the 26 industrialized nations combined, so you can look anywhere and see better gun policies. There was a mass shooting of 16 5-year-olds in Scotland, and after that guns were banned in Great Britain. Canada shares a huge border with the U.S, and they might have 150 gun deaths in a year. You can’t get a handgun in Canada, so they have all long guns. Meanwhile, we have 100 gun deaths a day, and 230 others are injured [daily]. Basically, every other country has effective, reasonable, and sensible gun policies. The U.S. is an outlier, and we are reaping what we sow. We are an extremely dangerous place when it comes to gun violence, and it’s getting worse every day.

Have you every interacted with the NRA?

Yes, they are, disputably, a racist and violent organization. They want unrestricted access to guns by all people so that there is an increase in gun violence and hate crimes; so that inner city black kids can access guns more easily than jobs and kill each other; so there can be more mass shootings to increase violence, fear, and gun sales. After every mass shooting or daily gun incident there is more fear and, as a result, more gun sales. Gun violence is, by design, for profit and greed on the part of gun industry, and a racist, bigoted, fascist organization called the NRA. They’re happy to have more mass shootings and fuel a cultural war between races and religions in this country in order to promote their own white supremacist and nationalist agenda.

You were talking earlier about the Australian buyback. Would you support a measure like that in the U.S., even though it would seem to go against the Second Amendment? 

The Supreme Court ruled that assault weapons are not protected by the Second Amendment, so it’s totally consistent. I would support it. I don’t know anybody who uses an assault rifle, like an AR-15 or an AK-47 or an M-16. An AR-15 is basically a civilian version of an M-16 military weapon; nobody uses that for sport.

What can regular people, regardless of how they vote or interpret the Second Amendment, do to help reduce gun violence?

You can join Stop Handgun Violence and our effort at You can help raise money so that we can buy advertising and support our public awareness campaigns. You can talk to your families and get them to get involved before you lose someone in your own family. You can organize, make calls to members of Congress and legislatures, attend rallies, attend hearings. I mean, put your damn phone down and stop obsessing about Instagram or whatever most kids are doing now, and pay attention to and participate in your democracy before you lose it entirely!

Tell us a bit about your background with activism.

What I figured out, starting at BB&N—which is why I was excited to come back and do [this interview]—was that business and privileged people have an inordinate access to resources and need to do something with their good fortune. In many ways BB&N helped foster my activism. Just about everybody at BB&N is very privileged. The more you have, the more you have to give, or you get crazy, whether that is with money, time, or privilege. I’ll never forget senior year in high school when my English teacher said he’d do something different for the day and actually showed Holocaust films—the films with emaciated bodies and people starving to death being bulldozed into trenches. I realized then that we have to do something with our good fortune. If I were born with my last name in Nazi Germany in 1940, I’d be dead. That’s when I became an activist and when I became very impatient about trying to fight social, environmental, and economic injustices.

The right to keep and bear arms is described in the Second Amendment of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which was passed in 1791. How the Second Amendment ought to be interpreted has been the subject of much debate. Supreme Court justices clearly articulated the opposing views of its interpretation in the landmark District of Columbia vs. Heller case in 2008. This case overturned the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns, striking the law down as unconstitutional.

Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion asserted that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense, regardless of whether the individual is part of a militia. Justice John Paul Stevens disagreed, stating in the dissenting opinion that the phrase “to keep and bear arms” refers to participation in a militia only.

While guns in the U.S. are legal, gun owners must abide by federal as well as state laws. There is a wide range in stringency with regard to the purchase and possession of guns from state to state. These differences—and the federal law permitting the transportation of guns across state borders—make tracking guns difficult.

According to Rep. Kennedy and Mr. Rosenthal, the greatest obstacle to passing legislation for more restrictive gun laws is the National Rifle Association (NRA)—a non-profit organization that advocates for gun rights. With an influential lobbying arm in Congress, the NRA has succeeded in protecting the gun industry by barring the National Consumer Product Safety Commission from regulating the manufacturing and marketing of firearms.


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