Congressman John Rutherford, R-FL4, appeared on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross on Wednesday.
This transcript of the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
MR = Melissa Ross | JR = Congressman John Rutherford
MR: Members of Congress are back in their districts for the month of August, touching base with constituents, and they're hearing about lots of issues: everything from the economy to the current push on Capitol Hill for new gun legislation, thoughts about the president and a whole lot more. We welcome North Florida Republican Representative John Rutherford to the show. Congressman Rutherford, good to have you on the show.
JR: Melissa, good to be back with you.
MR: It's like old, old times. I know. I was thinking about that. You used to come in here all the time when you were Sheriff Rutherford. The only sheriff in Congress.
JR: That is true.
MR: You bring a unique perspective to so many issues in your current role as a former law enforcement leader. Let's begin with the latest we're hearing from President Trump on this current push in Congress for gun reform legislation. We learned yesterday that after speaking with the head of the NRA, the president said he's backing off his support on enhanced background check measures for gun purchases. What are your thoughts about that?
JR: Well, we actually enhanced the background check system last session with the Fix NICS bill that will require better reporting from federal agencies and others into that system. But I bet if you look, Melissa, none of those background checks would have prevented many of the shootings that we are all mostly concerned about. And so, you know, when I drafted the Stop School Violence Act of 2018, we got the language ready working with the Sandy Hook Promise group. One of the things that I've done with every bill that I've filed is I've reached across the aisle for in a bipartisan way to try and get others to work with me for a primary cosponsor. That means their name goes on that legislation as well. And so I gave it to Ted [Deutsche, D-FL22]. He looked at it, he said, ‘John, I love it. Put me on as a primary.’ So I then file that bill January 30. Exactly two weeks later, February 14, we had the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, which is right in the middle of Ted's district. And so we were able to get that bill passed into law very quickly.
But the key to that bill was it focused on the shooters and identified — if you remember, Melissa, when I was sheriff I used to tell my men and women all the time, ‘I don't want to be the best first responder to a mass casualty event. I want to prevent that before it occurs,’ — and what the Stop School Violence Act focused on was those individuals that have a propensity to become active shooters.
And so that's one reason I support these red flag laws that will do the same thing. The focus should not be on the guns; the focus should be on the individual that's pulling the trigger. And we need to we need to find out who those people are. Because, like, whether they use an AR-15 or they use a Glock handgun, people are going to die. I want to prevent any of that from occurring.
MR: Let me ask you as a follow up, for example, in Dayton, Ohio, the shooter there was stopped by police in less than a minute. The police in Dayton did an outstanding job. I'm from that town, and my parents were concerned that their loved ones could have been in the Oregon district that night. The police stopped that shooter in under a minute. Still, the current argument in Congress is whether to restrict access to high-capacity magazines because someone like that young man can kill so many people in such a short amount of time. Let me ask you about this, too. A few weeks ago, your Democratic counterpart in the House, Congressman Al Lawson, appeared on this program. Here's what he said about his GOP colleagues in the Congress when it comes to the issue of gun reform: ‘We have to face it, many of my Republican colleagues are pretty much owned by the NRA, and they are afraid to go against the NRA because of opposition they will probably receive in the next election.’
What's your reaction to that perception that you’re beholden to the NRA, that the Republican representatives in the House and Senate won't embrace measures that are popular with the public like enhanced background checks, red flag laws— as you said, you support — and other measures that the public is now increasingly calling for?
JR: Listen, I don't think the NRA buys people. They certainly haven't bought me.
MR: They’ve donated to you.
JR: They have.
MR: Does that influence your vote?
JR: I think they donate to me because I support the Second Amendment. I don't support the Second Amendment because the NRA wants me to. They come to me. I support the Second Amendment. Now, on the high capacity magazines, look, what do you limiting it to five rounds or 10 rounds or whatever you may limit it to — look, I've done combat reloads. It takes less than a second to combat reload a semiautomatic pistol, for example.
MR: But why should a civilian have access to 100-round drums, which is what this shooter in Dayton had: 100 rounds. Why? What about the argument that a number, a growing number of Republicans are making, that these are weapons of war, these should not be made accessible to civilians, and you can still robustly preserve Second Amendment rights?
JR: How many hundred-round magazines have been used in any of these shootings?
MR: He got off dozens of shots under a minute.
JR: You could have done that without a 100-round drum or whatever magazine.
MR: But if it saves even a few lives isn't it worth it? Isn't it worth it?
JR: Well, that's not gonna save a few lives, changing that. What will save a few lives —
MR: How do you know that? There's a growing body of evidence to show that limiting access to high-capacity magazines can reduce the carnage that we're seeing on our streets, in our public places, in churches, schools and movie theaters. It's carnage. What about that?
JR: The way to remove the carnage is to stop the individuals before they pick up a gun and become a mass shooter. Identify these individuals.
MR: Can’t we do both?
JR: In almost every case, particularly in the schools, in almost every one of these cases, the couple weeks after the shootings, you hear these anecdotal stories come out. Nobody's really surprised who these individuals are when they do these things. Especially in in Parkland, there were a whole lot of failures in Parkland. So I think it's more important to go after the individual. And, that's why I support these red flag laws. It's about identifying behavior and addressing that as opposed to addressing a gun. I have a whole safe full of guns. I've never killed anybody. It's not the guns. It's not the drums. It's the people. And that's the conversation, Melissa, that nobody on the left wants to have. Because then you have to talk about God. You’ve got to talk about faith. You’ve got to talk about values. They don't want to have those conversations.
MR: But what about the fact that there's bipartisan calls now, for, as you said, A. Stopping dangerous or disturbed people from accessing these weapons, and B. Having a fresh conversation about access to military-grade weapons, and the perception that some of your colleagues will not embrace this due to fear of the NRA or the president or whomever profits, preventing these kinds of common-sense changes that the majority of Americans say they want?
JR: First of all, I don't know that it’s the majority of the Americans.
MR: Ninety-seven percent of Americans want better background checks; a majority of Americans want a red flag law.
JR: I support both of those.
MR: But they won't pass the Senate. What about that? You're in the House. But what about the obstruction in the Senate?
JR: Well, listen, the background check bill, HR8, [also called the Bipartisan Background Checks Act] that the Democrats passed out of the House this session, that's not a background check bill. That's a registration bill is what that is. And they try very, very backdoor-ishly to try and create these registrations for firearms. That's the problem with HR8, and that's why I voted against it. Look, I support good background checks. What I don't support is creating a system where I have to take a gun — if I want to buy a gun from someone — we go down and we give it to an FFL [Federal Firearm Licensed] dealer. He does a background check. And oh, by the way, he registers that gun. That's a diversified registration, and we never want that in this country.
MR: OK. Let me ask you about another hot topic. You’re a Republican. That said, a majority of Democrats in the House now support impeaching this president. We're learning that the House Intelligence Committee might use their access to counterintelligence secrets to guide a potential impeachment of the president. What's your reaction?
JR: I think it's ridiculous. I read the Mueller report. There was no collusion, there was no cooperation, coordination between the Trump campaign and those individual Russians who, through two means — first, they tried to tap into election systems. And so far we don't know anywhere that they were successful in actually changing a vote. And the other thing they tried to do was influence elections through… they bought, I think they're saying, $100,000 or so worth of [social media] ads and that sort of thing. Made it look like they were Americans, but they were really Russians trying to affect better outcomes. What we are working very hard to [do] now: to preclude both of those from happening in the future.
MR: What about the nearly a dozen instances of potential obstruction of justice Mueller identified in his report?
JR: What? Well, none of those — in fact, Mueller said, 'Look, at some point in the future, a special council may decide to indict a sitting president. But this is not the case.'
MR: You didn’t see this as an impeachment referral? Those that are championing impeachment — granted, they're on the opposite side than you — they read the Mueller report as an impeachment referral.
JR: I disagree completely. I think Mueller made it very clear in that report that he could not and would not, regardless of the [unclear], he was not going to indict the president on this case. That's why he said, you know, it may happen in the future, but I can't on this case, and I won't on this case.
Caller, Lamar in Mandarin: Thank you to Congressman Rutherford for his service to city of Jacksonville. But, Congressman, I will not vote for you again. To listen to your insensitive and defensive comments concerning gun control, I am nauseated, sir. I mean, when we've had 250 mass shootings in the United States so far this year, when will it be enough? 500? 1,000? Why don't you do something, sir?
MR: There's a lot of anger out there on this issue. Are you sensing that as you come back to the district?
JR: I think this has always been a big issue for, particularly for those of us in law enforcement. Just a week or so ago, a shooter in Philadelphia opened fire on a number of police officers. Just the latest incident. We've had to deal with this for a long time.
Caller, Tom on the Westside: I was just thinking that, yeah, it has always been a problem, but it is moving to epic proportions and getting totally out of control. My suggestion is that we tax these, as you said, military-style weapons, the AK’s, AR-15, as luxury items with a luxury tax. I would also suggest that we go with a bullet tax to make the ammunition more expensive. And certain items like bulletproof vests and suppressors only serve to give these deranged murderers a tactical advantage over law enforcement. I think these things need to be banned from civilian sale as well.
JR: I agree. I'm not sure that people need bulletproof vests out there. I concur with that. The issue on the suppressors, though: When I was sheriff, I never signed for a suppressor because I didn't want them being utilized against law enforcement. But I will tell you I don't know of a case where they ever have been. If there’s a case out there, tell me about that case because I don't know of a suppressor ever being used against the police.
MR: What about taxing not just weapons but bullets while ensuring that you can still legally buy them? It might perhaps be a deterrent toward those that could use these weapons in an irresponsible way.
JR: That's an attempt to bypass the Second Amendment and restrict gun use through making guns unusable because you can't get any ammunition. Now, there are some guns already. For example, fully automatic firearms that have a Class 3 designation, which takes a special permit, a special sign-off to own those guns.
MR: Why not expand that to other military-grade weapons that have been used in the majority of mass shootings?
JR: Well, because they are semiautomatic weapons. Now, for example, I also supported the president and banning the bump stocks. Because they, they literally made a gun function like a fully auto gun externally.
MR: Why not look at the existing laws that still allow for America to be an outlier across the entire developed world on this issue? We have more gun violence and gun homicide than any other nation on Earth except Yemen.
JR: No, we're like No. 27. [Editor's note: The United States has the 28th-highest rate of deaths from gun violence in the world: 4.43 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 — far greater than what is seen in other wealthy countries.]
MR: We have an extraordinarily high number of gun related homicides.
JR: You need to check those numbers.
MR: We do, sir, and your constituents are not happy about it. I say this with respect, more than any other issue this is what our listeners want to talk to you about.
JR: And that’s why I support the red flag laws. Look, when you say that there's more gun violence in America than anywhere in the world that's not factually correct.
MR: In the developed world, it certainly is, absolutely. In the Western, developed world. We are at the top. Yes, we are.
JR: 65% of the gun violence in America is suicide.
MR: That's right. More people die by suicide than homicide by guns. Which also buttresses the argument of, as you said, limiting access to weapons to those that are not in a position to use them responsibly.
JR: We have about 30,000 firearm deaths a year. Sixty-five percent of those are suicide, about 5,100 of those remaining are actually criminal means, you know, shooting clubs and schools and those kind of things. Around 5,100. Now, of those, 25% of that 5,100 occur in like four cities: Chicago, Baltimore, you know, L.A. So, we have to put this in perspective, too, and I think when people try to use this to overcome the Second Amendment, I've got problems with that. And that's what these taxes on bullets and ammunition is.
MR: And many of those ideas aren't likely to pass through the process.
JR: And why would those not pass through the process? You know why? Because the vast majority of Americans disagree with them.
MR: The vast majority of Americans, including gun owners and NRA members, believe that we could do a better job with this issue. What about that?
JR: The vast majority of Americans disagree with that process. They don't want to see the Second —
MR: — but they’re saying you can preserve the Second Amendment while better ensuring the public safety of the American people.
JR: We are, through the background checks, the Fix NICS that we passed, through the red flag laws that I hope we will get passed when we go back.
Caller, Dave in Nassau County: I read the Mueller report. And according to the Justice Department guidelines, they said that they would not indict a sitting president. And this president clearly would have been indicted for all the efforts at obstruction of justice had it not been for the fact that he is a sitting president. If the only reason why you're not in jail is because you're president, perhaps you shouldn't be president.
JR: That is that is not what the report said. In that is not what Mr. Mueller said.
Caller: That is absolutely what he said. He said, in essence, that they have a Justice Department guideline that says that they will not indict a sitting president. That's the only reason why this president wasn't indicted.
JR: He also said that any special counsel in the future might decide to indict a sitting president. But this is not the case where that could occur.
Caller: Where does it say that? Please tell me which page.
JR: He's he made that comment with [Attorney General] Bill Barr.
MR: Bill Barr was appointed by the president to lead [the Department of Justice]. What's your reaction to those who see him as having a higher loyalty toward protecting this president, rather than defending the Constitution?
JR: I think Bill Barr has a higher commitment to the Constitution than to the President. And I think what you're going to see — I've asked this a million times: Tell me what the predicate act was that caused the United States intelligence departments to investigate and spy on not just a citizen of the United States but a presidential candidate.
MR: It began with Five Eyes [an intelligence-sharing agreement between the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand]. It began with Australia, who keeps their eyes on actors overseas that they perceive could be a threat to the United States. They reported to our federal authorities that [ex Trump aide] George Papadopoulos was having what they perceived to be highly unusual conversations with Russian nationals. It spread from there. But what about that?
JR: It absolutely did not. I disagree. I disagree.
MR: Yes it did. But that's in the record. It's factual. This is what happened.
JR: This is why I think Bill Barr is going to wind up putting some FBI people and probably some AG people probably in jail, because when they went to that FISA court, I think they lied.
MR: What do you think they lied about?
JR: I think they lied through omission. They have an affirmative responsibility to provide exculpatory information to the FISA judge. From all appearances that never happened, they never told him that this came from the DNC, this Steele dossier. They never mentioned that information. That GPS was actually hired by the DNC, never mentioned any of that.
JR: Well, I think all of this is still under investigation, and it's all going to come out, and that's why I support Bill Barr and what he's doing. He's looking at the investigation.
MR: OK. Let me ask you, on another note, as we talk about the president: Admittedly, President Trump has a sky high approval rating among Republicans and certainly with the majority of your constituents in your district. That said, in recent weeks some high-profile Republicans have said that, privately they know that members of the House and Senate are weary of this president. His tweets. Coming out with ideas like trying to buy Greenland, for example. They say, people in the House and Senate like you, privately complain about him but won't publicly say anything against him. What about that?
JR: Well, look, when I disagree with the president, I say so. But I talk about policy. I don't get into the, you know, all the individual back and forth that goes on. That's not what I'm up there to do. I'm up there to serve the American public. And so when I have disagreed with him on policy, I step out and say so.
MR: Where do you see disagreements with this president and where do you support him?
JR: Well, I can tell you, I support him on the economic front, mainly because a lot of people — f irst of all, we're seeing the success of that, the whole tax cut jobs act that is putting more money back in people's pockets. You know, the CBO — and I actually have to defend that vote to my Republican base, because I created this deficit. But what's never told in that, Melissa is the fact that when the CBO scored that bill, they scored it with a 1.9% GDP growth, and that's for the next 10 years. Well, we're already growing at, what, 3, 3-plus. And so the Ways and Means Office will tell you every percentage point above 1.9 is an additional $274 billion in revenue. And so, in three or four years, that deficit will be covered. Now, in addition to that, when we get the USMCA, the new NAFTA if you will, we get that passed, that'll be an additional $68 billion to our GDP. And here's why these things are so important like the like the tariffs and the actual trying to balance the trade field with China and Canada and Mexico. Look, China — in fact, there was an article that came out just the other day that, I think Australia ran it — that the United States couldn't win a peer-to-peer war with China in Asia. I had an opportunity to go to the Pacific Rim exercises, where our military was performing in the Pacific, and I'm told that China has three times our surface vessels. They have five times our subsurface vessels. They have three to four times our airplanes in that Pacific Theater now, that they're doing all of this with our money, with that trade imbalance that we had for the last 20 years. I tell folks, we've been in a trade war with China. We just haven't been fighting back. Thank God this President understands that it's a national security issue.
MR: What about the fact, though, that we as Americans pay those tariffs, we are the ones bearing the brunt of that, as well as consumers and the goods that we're buying? And what about the argument that in the end, no one wins in a trade war?
JR: You're right, they don't. And that's why we need to fight back in this trade war that China's been hitting us with for the last 20 years.
MR: Is this the smartest way though, to go about it?
JR: It's the only way to go about it.
MR: A number of economists have said that this trade war could send us right into a recession. Do you agree?
JR: No. I don't agree because I think the president understands — look at our farmers, for example. He’s providing them the backstop that they need to get through this.
MR: Isn't that socialism? Picking winners and losers and the economy like a state-planned economy the way Russia used to do?
JR: Well, it's not an individual farmer, its farmers that are impacted by —
MR: — but you’re picking winners and losers in the economy.
JR: No, you’re propping up an industry, mitigating damage that's being done by trying to get China to the table to negotiate fairly.
MR: A leak published in the Tampa Bay Times the other day said that you and your colleagues in the house on the Republican side were given talking points about this issue, and that you are instructed to downplay the role of white nationalism in our gun violence problem and say that both sides are equally to blame. What about that?
MR: I was a law enforcement for 41 years. Have you ever heard me support white nationalism? Come on, that that's an absurd accusation.
MR: What about the fact though, that according to the FBI director, the majority of these shootings are influenced by white nationalism and that the FBI is engaged in that as perhaps their top domestic security issue right now?
JR: Well, I don't have an opinion on their opinion. But what I can tell you is the Black Lives Matter group, and not Black Lives Matter, but any group that marches down the streets of New York, chanting, ‘What do we want? ‘Dead cops.’ When do we want it?’ ‘Now.’ That's a hate group.
MR: Many of our listeners want to know are you holding a town hall meeting while you're home this month?
MR: Why not?
JR: Because they're dysfunctional. What I do, my responsibility to my constituents, is to make myself available. And I do that every day, day in and day out. Anybody can come to my office and they do. I speak at every civic group in this in this district from Nassau to St. Johns County. I spend most of my time doing that. And, and those are very productive meetings where we get to share real information without all of the theatrics that others want to bring into that town hall situation. I refuse to do it. I'm not going to play by that rule. If you want to see me, come to my office, we can talk. Or go to one of these other meetings that I'm in. I’m glad to meet and talk with anybody and everybody. But I'm not going to go where folks want to get on TV for their 15 seconds of fame and give them that that platform. I'm not going to do it.
MR: Well, since this was a bit of a virtual town hall, we appreciate you coming and sharing and connecting with all the constituents out there while you're home. And we were also grateful to have our other local representative Al Lawson during the recess. Congressman John Rutherford. Thank you.
JR: Thank you, Melissa, it's always great to be with you. Thanks so much.