Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Live Event/Special

Cuomo Prime Time: The Price of Freedom. Aired 10:30-11p ET

Aired September 19, 2021 - 22:30   ET




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I'm not just going to be apathetic and let it continue happening and saying it's never going to touch me, because it will. And you have the power to do something about that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One of the most basic ways that we are capable of making an impact is voting. Let the politicians in your area know that you are paying attention to what's going on. And a lot of people working together on that and make a huge difference.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My strength comes from Jaime. I've lost this capacity for fear and anxiety. We can't be afraid of the NRA anymore. Too many people have died. And now it is time to fix this.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are at a crossroads. We can let the shooting continue. Or we can act. We can protect our families, our future. We can vote. We can be on the right side of history. Please join us in this fight.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: Hey, everyone, I'm Chris Cuomo, and welcome to a special edition of Prime Time. This is a Price of Freedom post show to keep the conversation going. That's what this has to be about.

We just watched one of the most powerful films on one of the most divisive issues in our country. Depending on your perspective, you will call it gun control or gun rights or constitutional rights. The language is evidence of the separation of interests and perspective.

But the key of that movie is the NRA's rise to power as not just a lobbying group, but a political force that has shaped America's gun policies for decades. A central question posed in the documentary is if the death of 20 children can't motivate action, what will? Is that the fair question? Is it the right question? Do we know the answer?

It's true the Senate failed to pass an expansion of background checks following the 2012 massacre and Sandy Hook. And here we are today several 1,000 mass shootings later. There's no country like ours when it comes to gun violence. Why is that? The CNN Film raised a host of questions. So let's look for answers. Great panel, you'll know them from the movie.

Mary Anne Franks, Legal Scholar featured in the Price of Freedom. She's also the author of The Cult of the Constitution, our deadly devotion to guns and free speech. Shannon Watts, the Founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and author of Fight Like a Mother, How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change The World. We're also joined by gun owner Wes Siler, an avid hunter, who is not a supporter of the NRA, you also saw him in the film. Welcome to all of you.

And before we start, I want everybody at home to know, we invited the NRA to join us. I didn't hear back by our deadline for recording this program. The invitation stands.

All right, so Mary Anne Franks, thank you very much, to each and all of you. But Mary Anne, let me start with you. Having seen the movie now, just because you're in something, doesn't mean you're going to understand its impact once you see the full project completed. What surprised you about the actual film when you saw it?

MARY ANNE FRANKS, LAW PRFOESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI: I think the most surprising thing was how well the documentary really put together the NRA's role in creating this kind of propaganda around guns, how much they have really orchestrated how they've coordinated this movements, to convince Americans that the only way that they could protect themselves is through firearms. These are intuitions that many people have had, but really seeing it all laid out and just seeing all the different aspects of that highly politicized, highly coordinated campaign that was really striking.

CUOMO: Let's build on that. It's great point. So Shannon, help Mary that with your understanding of how this issue plays on its face as right and wrong with a side dish of legality. Right.


But at the end of the day, it's really about optics and organizing and pressure and timing. How did you make that discovery in your own work? Go ahead, please.

SHANNON WATTS, FOUNDER, MOMS DEMAND ACTION FOR GUNS SENSE IN AMERICA: Let's be clear, you know, the NRA was once the largest, most powerful special interests that ever existed in this country. And here we go in 2021. And they're actually one of the weakest organizations now, right? They're weaker than they've ever been. They're under investigation on many fronts. They're losing money. They're losing power. In many ways they're paper tiger. Their investment in elections, for example, have dwindled the return they've had on those investments since 2010.

And so the NRA that we think of so often, when we think of this all powerful special interest, no longer exists. There's sort of a shell of what they used to be. And that is, in large part, because organizations like Moms Demand Action and others have taken them out. They've gone toe-to-toe with the gun lobby. And in the introduction, you mentioned Sandy Hook, and this idea of, you know, did something happen after Sandy Hook, Congress didn't act, we know that. But what did happen was that organizations, Americans got off the sidelines, they rose up against this gun lobby, and they took them on and they have been successful in hobbling them and taking away their power.

CUOMO: And certainly something that we should discuss. After I looped, Wes in is, the idea of this may be moving from a federal one size fits all solution to state by state. That's what worked for the NRA, and their progress from their perspective and changing things. And that was is what seems to be working after Parkland. And we'll get to that.

But Wes, I want to bring you in because, you know, you, as a character are often framed as like a unicorn in this debate. You are the gun owner, who is not an NRA. Second Amendment fiend. I too, am a gun owner. And I'm sure you and I have very similar conversations with our friends who are in that about this issue.

And you're actually not a unicorn. Most gun owners think that you should be trained, that you should know how to store your weapon. And if God forbid anybody gets your weapon and uses it in a crime that's on you. And that background checks for all sales make sense.

WES SILER, GUN OWNER: Absolutely. Thanks, Chris. I am not a unicorn. There are over 190 million gun owners in this country. The NRA has as little as 3 million members. They represent 1 percent of gun owners. They do not speak for us. Over 80 percent of gun owners believe in common sense gun control regulations. I'm anything but a unicorn. The unicorns are the snowflakes on the right who will not compromise.

CUOMO: You know, it's good point too. Mary Anne, one of the things that struck me in the Price of Freedom is you would think that the emotion on this issue would militate in favor of the people who want more restrictions on weapons, because almost without exception, they are the ones who have suffered loss where the pain is, sometimes you'll have somebody who lost someone instead of only they had had a gun. But more -- most often, the victimization is on the side of people who want change that increases restrictions. You know, David Keene, the former NRA president said something in the film that is worth revisiting. Listen to this.


DAVID KEENE, FMR. NRA PRESIDENT: Americans came to this country survived on the frontier protected their families. They knew that if they got into trouble, help was probably not going to come in. So they develop this self-reliance. Gun control is not simply about guns. It's about an assault on values and an image of America that believers in the Second Amendment hold dear. It's an attack not just on the guns. It's an attack on them. It's an attack on their lifestyle. It's an attack on the country and the values that the founders cared about.


CUOMO: Gun as metaphor for freedom. And being American. At the end of the day, Mary Anne, that is the emotional swing. That is such a catalyst on that side of the equation.

FRANKS: It's absolutely a huge part of it. This is what I have referred to as constitutional fundamentalism. It's a lot like religious fundamentalism. It's about invoking a Sacred Scripture to essentially put forward your self-interested view and say it's not because I'm selfish. It's not because I am reckless. It's because the constitution demands this, America's identity depends on this.

It's incredibly effective propaganda. It's a way of trying to close down any sensible debate, any question, any criticism, by effectively asserting patriotism, American identity and portraying themselves, portraying the supports as this ever persecuted victim group that has to fight against being besieged on all sides by people who want to destroy America.


CUOMO: Who was actually if perversely, Shannon, from your perspective, emboldened in their position every time there is a massacre, because for every parent that they hear, like you saying, I don't want this to happen to anybody else, what happened to my kid should never they say, yes, me either. That's why we need more guns. That's why you can't take them from the good guys. You have to just take them from the bad guys. What do you say to that notion?

WATTS: Well, let's be clear. There's a whole host of executives at gun lobbies all across the country, including Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA, who have become millionaires off of that kind of rhetoric, off of exploiting chaos and tragedy, all the way up to the COVID crisis. It's why we've seen tens of millions of gun sales, you know, in the last two years or so. That's because the NRA and other gun lobbyists have gotten rich off of selling guns because of tragedy.

And look, if the data bared out what they were saying, we would be the safest country in the world. More guns and fewer gun laws have given us a 25 times higher gun homicide rate than any other high income country. So this is a failed experiment, it's very clear that what they're saying isn't true. But also when you look at the data in the states where we've passed stronger gun laws, you see fewer gun deaths. So we know how to solve this crisis. We just can't let gun manufacturers and gun lobbyists stand in the way.

CUOMO: The Price of Freedom has a very powerful chart and it, Wes, where it shows what happened with gun homicides. And I use that word carefully. The number one gun death in this country is suicide. And it plays into our understanding of mental health, and a whole other level of victimization.

But in terms of one person using a weapon against another, if you look at the curve, before and after the assault weapons ban expired and was allowed to expire, you literally see an inverted swoop. So that's the strength behind Shannon's point.

One thing that wasn't really highlighted in the film, not as a criticism, but just as a commentary, Antonin Scalia may rest in peace, the former Supreme Court Justice is in the beginning of the film, with Chris Wallace, talking about the fact that reasonable restrictions have always been allowed. The irony in that is, of course, he was the author and the advocate for the most significant change in the law that really isn't discussed much in the film, which was finding an individual right within the Second Amendment, which had never been found by the Supreme Court until Scalia found it and convinced the court of the same.

What does that mean to you in terms of what the law suggests, what the constitution was to reveal?

SILER: Well, I hate to say this, Chris, but I agree with Antonin Scalia. The Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own firearms. But he wrote in that opinion, in that Heller case, that it also allows for reasonable gun control. And we have to go about. He's the most conservative judge in the history of the Supreme Court. If we can't agree with him on that, you know, where are we?

CUOMO: Although Mary Anne, he wasn't conservative in that decision. He was not going by his, you know, the gospel of Scalia was keep it to the four corners. He read something into the Second Amendment that no matter how you want to count commas or words in it was never found by any other court. How significant was that in the ultimate reckoning of this issue among our culture?

FRANKS: Tremendously significant, because it essentially handed down from on high, the NRA''s perspective of the Second Amendment. For the longest time, everyone agreed that the Second Amendment was about a collective rights. It was about having at least some kind of connection to what the constitution commits us to in terms of general welfare, domestic tranquility.

And for the Supreme Court to say, No, actually, we're going to go against history and precedent and most common sense understandings and say that actually this gives you the right personally to defend yourself. That was a huge sea change. And it was definitely in the NRA's favor, even though it wasn't -- it didn't go nearly as far as the NRA would have wanted. But it very much gave that stamp of approval to that viewpoint.

CUOMO: It was the best thing that's ever happened to them in terms of fighting against laws, because now you have the supreme law of the land, recognizing that individual by individual is how the Second Amendment should be applied.

Shannon, one of the things that's highlighted very well in the Price of Freedom is that after Parkland the kids organized, and there became a poignancy to it and an energy to it, that maybe we needed in terms of the perspective of just having more robust debate here.

And there then was some output at the polls. But we also saw that bear concentration manifested itself most from a productivity standpoint, state by state, which actually echoed with the NRA had done going state by state. Do you believe that that is the future of change that is not going to happen at the federal level.

[22:45:04] WATTS: So when I started Moms Demand Action at the end of 2012, you know, a few months into 2013, there was a bill put forward, a bipartisan bill called mentioned (ph) to me that would have closed the background check loophole. In other words, you wouldn't be able to buy unlicensed gun sales. You wouldn't be able to sell them without a background check. That failed.

And so it became apparent to us in 2013, that we were going to have to go state by state. And we have so many people are waiting for this cathartic moment in Congress, which I believe is coming. But it's important to remember that we've passed hundreds of good gun laws at the state level. Just in the last nine years, we've stopped the NRA's agenda, year after year in state houses 90 percent of the time.

And on top of that, we have gone through city councils and school boards and even corporate boardroom to change the culture of gun violence in this country. So we actually are winning against the gun lobby, it's important to remember that, and it's much like any social issue in this country. You have to build momentum on the ground. You have to create change that eventually points the right president and the right Congress in the right direction.

CUOMO: Wes, what do you say to your friends when they say, brother, we have so many gun laws right now. It's so complicated, it's so hard to take so much time, and they are all oriented toward keeping good people who want to go through the process from getting a weapon, and they do nothing to stop the bad guys. We're just going to buy him off the street. What do you say?

SILER: Let me go back to your point that Heller was the best decision ever for the NRA. The NRA actually opposes any pro-gun legislation, because remember, they are political organization. They really don't care about guns. They just uses guns as a tribal identity, you know, Totem, and their larger Republican culture wars. Pro-gun legislation actually works against their interest because they can't sell fear.

And so the problem is, the NRA has restricted gun experts, gun companies, gun professionals from participating in gun control. And so the laws that are written are written sort of unsensible and in a burdensome manner, because experts don't participate. The NRA's prevented that. And they then use that as an example they can hold it up and say, Look, gun control doesn't make sense. It's anti your interests, because they don't allow any extra participation.

CUOMO: I'll end on this. We're both right. Because without it reading an individual right into that amendment, they would not have the ability to fight for the individual's right to buy weapons, it would have been stayed to an understanding of a militia and a collective and community by community. But you're also right, that they have had it both ways.

Mary Anne Franks, Shannon Watts and West Siler, thank you very much for your perspective. Thank you for your participation. And I hope to speak about this again.

Now, the NRA still has plenty of sway. But as Shannon Watts just mentioned, it's not the powerhouse at once was, it's taken some big hits, especially in recent years with corruption claims and bankruptcy scandals, alleged abuse of funds by executives, current and former, and more.

So let's bring in a reporter who's been keeping close tabs on all the turbulence. His name is Mike Spies. And he's a contributor for The New Yorker and staff writer at The Trace. It's good to have you.

MIKE SPIES, CONTRIBUTOR, THE NEW YORKER: Thanks for having me, Chris.

CUOMO: So allow the understanding of why the NRA has gotten into trouble to be conveyed to this audience. What is at the root of the current troubles?

SPIES: The root of the current troubles goes back to the early 90s when the organization started paying exorbitant sums of money to top executives and friends of the family, if you will, contractors, that sort of thing. And over a period of decades that resulted in literally hundreds of millions of dollars going out the door for no good reason, and often against rules that govern nonprofits, especially in the state of New York.

So, when I first broke the story about that in 2019 that started an investigation here in New York, because people don't always remember that the NRA when it was born was born here in New York. So the Attorney General Letitia James launched a fairly wide ranging probe that resulted in a complaint, which is essentially been updated, I think, three times now and is seeking to dissolve the organization.

CUOMO: Yes, the attorney general has been dogged in this. If anything has become more expansive, not less. Now, the pushback will be see this is what you do is you can't get them on the policy. You can't beat them fairly. So you found all these little loopholes to take them down and take them out of the mix. Is that a fair explanation?

SPIES: No, it's not really a fair explanation because I think if you were to think about what the NRA his core mission was and why was formed originally.


And I think for most of its members, its function was supposed to be that of a sporting and hunting organization that also was primarily organized around gun safety. But over the last 15 years, in particular, the amount of money that was spent on gun safety, which attaches its core principle went down dramatically, while its spending on media went up dramatically. It essentially became a media company.

And the more money that was coming in that was being generated by like, what you could call a perpetual outrage machine was not being spent on, you know, stuff that was going to further the organization's mission. It was going toward other things like, you know, golden parachutes, massive payouts, you know, private jets, all kinds of things that obviously didn't, in any way, fit within the scope of the mission. CUOMO: Wayne LaPierre had said in reaction to the Attorney General's lawsuit to CNN, LaPierre called the lawsuit and attempt to dismantle and destroy the NRA. The NRA is well governed, financially solvent, and committed to good governance. And that is all been called into question by the New York Attorney General. And it has not gone well for the NRA thus far in that reckoning, however, the cause lives on. And what do you think the lesson is in that?

SPIES: The NRA created a religion and I think that the documentary does a great job of establishing that, it's a lot more complicated than just the gun. The gun is sort of the crucifix of the cause. And in doing so, religion, obviously, is an organizing principle for people's lives. And it's become an, you know, organized it's become a -- it's become that for many millions of people over like many, many years.

And the NRA trained those people how to be politically active, how to show up to polls, how to click the e-mail button that sends a message to your legislator telling them not to do something that you don't want them to do. And in some ways, what the organization did was sort of build the machine and start it. And now it kind of runs on its own.

CUOMO: What do you think the significance is for the cause in wedding, W-E-D-D-I-N-G, the Second Amendment to the First Amendment, which is what they have done?

SPIES: Well, I think that was more of a litigation tactic, right? That was sort of the way that they -- it was there a certain novel legal strategy when they first came under scrutiny here in New York, which predated the complaint that I was talking about. The organization has been in a situation because of how it's been spending for a number of years, it's been in a situation that's required it to continually find new ways to bring in vast sums of cash.

And one of those ways was by rolling out a product in 2019, called Carry Guard that was meant to function as like, quote unquote, self- defense insurance, meaning like, you get insurance and in the event that you, you know, shoot someone in self-defense then your legal costs are theoretically covered.

That obviously immediately ran afoul of laws here in New York. And that got them into a fight with the Department of Financial Services. The governor became a huge issue. And their response to that was to say that the state of New York was seeking to muzzle it, and then try to say, Well, you know, what, this is really a First Amendment issue, more than it is a Second Amendment issue.

Without a Second Amendment, you can't have a First Amendment, because the Second Amendment stands between the population in tyranny. And that's always been a sort of abstract idea that fits with this larger narrative that they've told their members over a period of years and, you know, whether or not it feels preposterous to a lot of people. There's also a sizable portion of people that have really taken to that idea.

CUOMO: Yes. Mike Spies. Thank you so much for the reporting. And thank you for your participation here. Thank you.

SPIES: Great. Thanks, Chris.

CUOMO: All right, let's keep talking to solution. Fred Guttenberg, he's been fighting the fight for real change since his beautiful 14 year old daughter Jaime was killed in Parkland in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. You saw him in the Price of Freedom. He's also an author of Find the Helpers.

What 9/11 and Parkland taught me about recovery, purpose, and hope. It's good to have you, Fred.

FRED GUTTENBERG, AMERICAN ACTIVIST AGAINST GUN VIOLENCE: It's good to be with you, Chris. Thank you for having me tonight.

CUOMO: So let's open the book on your insight. What did it teach you about recovery purpose and hope?

GUTTENBERG: You know, listen, I don't get through what happened to my family after February 14th without the amazing people that had been a part of bringing me forward, a part of my life since this.


And, you know, I would throw into the mix, the folks involved with this film, and Ed Stack of Dick's Sporting Goods, for example, who was also, you know, engaged with this film who I consider a hero, because it is -- these amazing people around the country who have stood with me since my daughter was murdered, and said, we can be better than this. We can change. We can be gun owners in America, but we can also be for gun safety. And I just -- having this country stand with me to go against the lies of the NRA, which say something different, is something that I am truly thankful for.

CUOMO: So somebody comes up to you to give you a hug, and they say, Fred, I'm with you. Here's my problem. We have so many laws already. And they're all designed --


CUOMO: -- to keep good people from getting guns and these bad guys, you know, either they're getting them illegally, or they're stealing them or they're the problem. And you're just restricting my rights. Instead of targeting them, go after them. I love you, Fred. I want you to be successful, but you're going after the wrong people the wrong way. What do you say?

GUTTENBERG: Hey, listen, I say they're buying into the lie. Because here's the truth. The gun lobby that says that lie is also fighting tooth and nail to keep right now the ATF without a permanent director. They have fought tooth and nail for years, and we have not had a permanent director since ATF, whose job it is to enforce the laws on the books.

You know, back in April, I stood with President Biden in the Rose Garden when he announced the appointment of David Chipman. And what has the gun lobby done since? What is the NRA done since? They had put millions of dollars into keeping him from being a permanent director, to keeping this country from having the ability to enforce the laws on the books so that we can keep those who are very easily getting access to illegal weapons from having the ability to do so.

They don't care about safety. They don't care about enforcing the laws on the books. They love the chaos. They love the violence because they care about selling more guns.

Listen, what happened to my daughter, and I said it in the film. It was preventable. It was predictable. But so is the next one if we don't change.

CUOMO: The other layer of pushback that I want to hear from you about is, you know what, you're right. Fred, it could have been prevented. You know why, mental health. We got -- that's who does these mass shootings. It's not about the gun. It's about people who are mentally ill and families can't get them help. And, you know, that's what we have to focus on, not the gun, but those kinds of people and keeping them get them the help they need. Because then you won't have these mass shootings.

GUTTENBERG: Hey, listen, Chris. I have three goals, reduce the gun violence death rate, reduce the instances of gun violence and reduce the severity of injuries when these gun violence instances happen. And that's not always mass shootings. Mental health is part of those reductions.

However, OK, and I've spoken about this over the past couple of weeks. There was a story two weeks ago in Florida that horrified me, a two- year old infant, a baby, walk into the mom's office in the home, the homeless, the new workplace, with a gun that was left unlocked, and the mother was on a Zoom meeting with her coworkers, and the two-year old shot and killed the mom. OK. That's not mental health. That's us needing to do better to ensure that we are doing something to reduce these instances of gun violence.

Listen, I have no issue with legal lawful gun owners. My son has been shooting, OK. I have no issue with the Second Amendment. I hate gun violence. And I know we as a country can do better. And the NRA and this movie did a brilliant job of highlighting it. They've used this really weird argument about if we do something we're going to go on a slippery slope.

But what the movie showed is we've been on that slippery slope. We have been on that slope now for too many years since 1977 when Harlon Carter took over the NRA. It is time for us to fight back. It is time for us to put saving lives above all else because nothing else matters more.

CUOMO: Fred Guttenberg, well said and the perfect end note, God bless and be well with all your efforts going forward.

GUTTENBERG: Thank you, Chris.

CUOMO: I want to thank Fred and all of our guests for joining us and thank you for watching. I'm Chris Cuomo. Please stay tuned because the news will continue here on CNN.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Boosters for some.