How Biden keeps focus on gun violence 10 years after Sandy Hook
Then-Vice President Joe Biden stood at a podium in the South Court Auditorium of the White House nearly 10 years ago as the leader of a task force formed to find solutions after a gunman killed 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In 2016, Biden spoke to a group of Sandy Hook families and expressed hope that change was on the horizon with gun laws, noting it took him seven years of pushing as a senator before a decadelong assault weapons ban was enacted in 1994.
Wednesday will mark 10 years since the Sandy Hook massacre, but gun violence is as central to Biden’s politics as ever.
Perhaps more than any other issue, Biden has used his bully pulpit as president to push Congress to address gun violence, calling repeatedly for lawmakers to reimpose a ban on assault weapons as mass shooting after mass shooting devastates the country on a regular basis.
“Together, we’ve made some important progress: the most significant gun law passed in 30 years, but still not enough. Still not enough,” Biden said last week at the 10th annual Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence.
White House officials and advocates believe the nation is in a different place in its ability to fight gun violence than it was 10 years ago, largely because of the work done by groups after the Sandy Hook shooting that have helped shift public attitudes and make incremental legislative progress.
But the regularity with which Biden issues statements after mass shootings — in Boulder, in Buffalo, in Uvalde, in Tulsa, in Highland Park, in Raleigh, in Colorado Springs — shows how much work there still is to do.
“One benefit of Biden’s long career in Washington is that we all know what issues animate him, and it’s clear that gun violence is at the top of that list,” said Eric Schultz, a former deputy press secretary in the Obama White House.
The Sandy Hook shooting led Congress to coming the closest it has in decades to reinstituting an assault weapons ban. But when it came to a vote in 2013, it only garnered 40 Senate votes because several Democrats from swing states voted against it.
Congress also failed to pass universal background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. The 20-year-old shooter in Newtown, Conn., used a semi-automatic rifle and other guns legally purchased by his mother.
In the decade since, through executive action and legislation, the federal government has made progress on gun violence in other ways. Obama signed a package of executive orders after Sandy Hook with the help of Biden and his task force.
Biden has signed executive orders aiming to crack down on the use of ghost guns, which are more difficult to track and trace when they are used in crimes.
And Congress earlier this year passed bipartisan legislation bolstering red flag laws that make it easier for authorities to confiscate weapons from dangerous individuals, closing the so-called boyfriend loophole and enhancing background checks for those ages 18-21.
Groups like Everytown, Sandy Hook Promise, March for Our Lives and others have emerged in recent years to provide a counterbalance to the gun lobby. And polling has repeatedly shown stronger background checks and outlawing some semi-automatic weapons are popular with a majority of Americans.
Aides say the issue is personal for Biden, who has met with scores of survivors of gun violence and family members of victims during his time in government. In a 2016 speech to Sandy Hook families, he lamented that they shared something in common: They belonged to a “lousy club” of parents whose children had died before them. Biden lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015.
“He is consistent on this issue, and he’s been consistent for decades,” said Stefanie Feldman, a senior adviser on the White House Domestic Policy Council. “Because of that, he carries with him so many stories of people who have been directly impacted. He knows an assault weapons ban works. He knows other strategies to reduce gun violence work.”
Biden has talked at fundraisers and economic events, such as the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, about banning assault weapons. A White House official said Biden will sometimes ask that a reference to banning assault weapons be added to speeches if it is not already included.
Biden traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, following shootings at a grocery store and an elementary school, respectively. The president is expected to mark the Sandy Hook anniversary on Wednesday, and it is likely to renew attention on what still needs to be done to prevent future mass shootings.
Gun violence prevention advocates agree that not enough has been done to curb violence in the decade since the shooting at Sandy Hook. But, they say, progress has been made.
“The last 10 years have seen remarkable progress in building an effective social movement, the gun and safety movement, virtually from scratch. We have achieved more, I think, from a political advocacy standpoint than you might have expected when we first set out,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords.
“We’re hopeful that in the next decade that we’re going to be able to start seeing more of the effects of the policies that have been put in place and, more importantly, we’re going to be able to do more,” he said.
Zeenat Yahya, March For Our Lives policy director, said the uptick in gun violence since Sandy Hook is a clear indicator the problem persists.
“I don’t think enough has been done to curb gun violence in America, and particularly what’s really scary to me … what has really indicated that, obviously, is the fact that gun violence has increased so much over the years,” she said.
What gives advocates hope is the support for the gun violence prevention law that Biden signed in June.
Ambler called the gun control bill insufficient and narrow in scope but “an important validation of our strategy and our work over the past decade.” And it sets the stage for another 10 years of growth.
While Biden said as recently as last month that he was counting the votes to see if an assault weapons ban could pass Congress, the White House hasn’t given an update on if he has talked to lawmakers and its path to passage is unclear.
An assault weapons ban would need 60 votes in the Senate to bypass the legislative filibuster. Democrats will increase their majority next Congress to only 51 seats, while Republicans will hold a narrow majority in the House.
Advocates think that Biden should continue pushing for an assault weapons ban, even if he doesn’t have the votes.
“We need him to be able to do everything in his power possible to really apply pressure to Sen. [Charles] Schumer and to the Senate Dems, to get everybody on board and really just kind of go for it,” Yahya said.
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