Administration

Biden stays out of gun talks as Senate nears finish line

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
President Joe Biden walks to the Oval Office of the White House after stepping off Marine One, Monday, June 13, 2022, in Washington.

President Biden has promised to sign any bill related to curbing gun violence that Congress could manage to pass — but there is still a long way to go. 

With just a framework agreed upon, lawmakers still have to hash out legislative text, and most importantly, determine the cost of a host of measures including mental health services and how much money to send to states to strengthen red flag laws. 

The White House, in the meantime, seems to have taken the advice of some lawmakers in staying out of the negotiations by not appearing to dispatch administration officials to Capitol Hill to help close a deal, which is expected to fall well short of what Biden and many Democrats have called on Congress for years to do after a string of high-profile mass shootings that have devastated the nation.

“I think that the negotiators have worked to keep the president sort of at arm’s length so they have room to work without the looming presence of the president of the United States and the political baggage that comes with it,” a gun violence prevention advocate familiar with negotiations told The Hill.

The White House deployed a similar tactic to the delicate negotiations over the past few weeks, which is to leave it up to lawmakers on Capitol Hill to come to an agreement. Senators, including some Democrats, called for the White House to leave it up to them.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday the administration will continue to hold regular talks with negotiators but continued to give no further details on what those conversations have entailed.

“As it relates to his involvement in any of this, his team continues to talk to Congress on a regular basis, as we have been, as they have been this past several weeks. And we’re going to continue talking to negotiators on the Hill, to congressional members and staff on the Hill. And we will continue to have those conversations,” Jean-Pierre said. 

Biden is limited in actions he could take on guns from the executive office, but the bipartisan Senate framework released over the weekend would at least give Biden the chance to sign the most significant legislation related to gun violence in over 20 years.

Biden has called on Congress to pass some form of gun control legislation since he took office, specifically to reinstate an assault weapon ban that expired in 2004, which he helped pass as a senator. 

But even from his presidential bully pulpit, Biden did not get from the Senate framework what he asked for, or what many advocates and Democrats wanted to be included, such as the assault weapons ban, universal background checks and increasing the age to purchase an assault weapon from 18 to 21 years old.

The White House didn’t respond to comment when asked if it will send any officials up to Capitol Hill this week as the Senate put the final touches on a deal that as of Tuesday appears to be on track to become a piece of legislation. A top negotiator, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), met with Biden at the White House last week to discuss negotiations before the framework was announced over the weekend.

On Sunday, Biden said shortly after senators announced they had come to an agreement that he would sign any legislation on the matter that comes to his desk.

The bipartisan deal gained more traction on Tuesday when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said he would support legislation that reflects the framework. Senators are working on finalizing the text of the bill and eyeing to get it passed within the next two weeks — while keeping support from at least 10 Republicans so it is filibuster proof.

The framework includes closing the “boyfriend loophole” by preventing partners convicted of domestic abuse from buying a gun. It also includes funding for school mental health and safety programs, increasing penalties for straw purchases of firearms and reviewing juvenile records for purchasers between the ages of 18 and 20, among other provisions.

The White House, when asked if it would weigh in on the eventual final legislative text and provisions the administration wants to see in it, did not point to any specifics.

Some believe that’s smarter than not.

“They’re engaged but I think they are being smart and not making themselves the focus on the deal. I think it shows a commitment to the issue and a savvy understanding of the president’s role,” an advocate familiar with the negotiations said.

Gun violence prevention advocates say Biden’s role during negotiations has been through his usage of the bully pulpit and by bringing in high-profile guests, most notably Matthew McConaughey, to spread their message. McConaughey, who grew up in Uvalde, Texas, spoke during a White House briefing last week where he delivered an impassioned plea for gun control measures.

Moms Demand Action, which was founded in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting when Biden was vice president and when compromise legislation on gun control failed in the Senate, applauded the current Senate framework. 

Founder Shannon Watts said that the gun control grassroot movement has been demanding action from the Senate for nearly a decade, and she vowed to fight to get the deal across the finish line.

“This bipartisan framework is a major step in finally getting federal action to address gun violence and, if passed, will save lives,” Watts said in a statement. “We’re breaking the logjam in Congress and proving that gun safety isn’t just good policy – it’s good politics.”

The energy marks a shift from December, nearly a year into the Biden administration, when advocates were disappointed in Biden for not making more progress on gun control. Advocates said at the time that the president is an ally to the movement but hadn’t been a leader, wanting him to put more pressure on Congress to move on the matter.

Peter Ambler, executive director and co-founder of Giffords, said the latest efforts showed that Biden has at least tried to help by getting to this point.  

“This is not enough but it is significant and will have an important impact,” he said. “If it’s signed into law, it’s the most significant thing that Congress will have done in decades and I think that the president has been a significant part of helping the Congress and the country get to the point that that’s possible.”

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