Recent mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo. have quickly brought the issue back into the news and the political conversation in a way Biden couldn’t ignore, after a 12-month period in which news of shootings seemed to take a back seat to the pandemic.
Addressing gun violence was one of Biden’s big campaign promises, and activists said he needed to deliver. He campaigned on passing an assault weapons ban, universal background checks for gun purchases and other measures. That doesn’t mean his plan was likely to pass — but his voters expect him to deliver. He acknowledged the need for action at the White House on Thursday.
“Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it’s an international embarrassment,” Biden said in the Rose Garden. “Nothing I am about to recommend in any way impinges on the Second Amendment.”
But conservatives aren’t likely to see it that way; particularly rural voters who skew sharply Republican and strongly support gun rights. That is perhaps why Biden has taken his time to act, and why he’s limited for the most part to executive actions, rather than pursuing legislation in Congress.
The six actions Biden announced are:
- Targeting “ghost guns,” which replace the components that would normally be engraved with a serial number with homemade parts. Parts can easily be ordered on the Internet; people making them just need to use metalworking tools to put them together, and they’re untraceable to authorities. Officials in D.C. have become worried about such guns in recent years, saying they’re being seen more and more in homicides in the city. It isn’t illegal to make a gun at home in many parts of the United States, and “ghost gun” kits make it a lot easier.
- Directing the Justice Department to draft a new rule regulating “stabilizing braces,” which in effect allow pistols to function as short-barreled rifles. The new rule would specify that using such a brace means the gun is subject to the laws that govern short-barrel rifles. The man accused of killing 10 people in Boulder last month used such a weapon.
- A new annual Justice Department report on firearms trafficking.
- Making it easier for states to adopt “red flag” laws by publishing a model “red flag” bill. Biden hopes states will pass these laws on their own, since there isn’t currently a national law. They allow a family member or law enforcement officer to ask a court to bar an individual from accessing firearms, if they can show the person is dangerous to themselves or others.
- New proposed investments in community-based anti-violence programs aimed at urban communities. Biden wants to put $5 billion of new money into violence intervention programs across the United States over the next eight years, while revamping existing federal programs.
- Announcing a new nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, David Chipman. Chipman is a 25-year ATF veteran who has more recently worked as an adviser to a pro-gun-control lobbying organization and has previously said there should be more regulation of “ghost guns.”
Biden also urged the Senate to pass three bills already passed in the House that would close background check loopholes.
But despite pleas after every mass shooting, that legislation still hasn’t advanced. Conservatives have already criticized Biden’s initial actions as attacks against constitutionally protected gun ownership.
Biden’s move also comes as the National Rifle Association — which you might expect to be one of the loudest voices objecting to these measures — is in the middle of federal bankruptcy hearings. The organization is also the subject of a fraud lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James who is seeking to remove chief executive Wayne LaPierre and dissolve the organization. The NRA tweeted Wednesday that Biden’s actions are “extreme.”
But what ultimately matters here is whether the Senate can find an agreement on legislation that could create significantly bigger change than what Biden announced Thursday.
One GOP senator, Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), has been the face of moderation in the Republican Party for years. He tried to work with a group of Democrats to make an agreement on a background check law in 2013 and 2016, but couldn’t get enough senators on board to pass it. In a statement Thursday, Toomey seemed optimistic that some kind of deal could be reached, despite what look like steep odds.
“If done in a manner that respects the rights of law-abiding citizens, I believe there is an opportunity to strengthen our background check system so that we are better able to keep guns away from those who have no legal right to them,” Toomey said in a statement.
That opportunity hinges on something we haven’t seen much in the Senate recently — and not at all thus far in the Biden administration: bipartisan negotiations.