Biden pledges action on guns amid resistance
White House officials met last week with several gun violence prevention groups as they weigh how to move forward on an issue that has stymied Democrats for years.
The White House says President Biden is “personally committed” to action on an issue he has tackled many times in the past. Less than a month into the new administration, Biden officials are meeting with advocates backing reforms that Democrats have been pushing for in Congress, like strengthening background checks.
However, Americans’ views on guns may be even more divided than the last time Biden confronted the issue. A November Gallup poll found support for stricter gun laws is at its lowest level since 2016.
But anti-gun violence groups still see momentum. Brady, Giffords, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action met virtually on Wednesday with Susan Rice, the head of the Domestic Policy Council, and Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to the president.
Officials familiar with the meeting said Rice and Richmond signaled the White House was prepared to use multiple avenues to try to curb gun violence, including executive action, though the administration has yet to roll out any specific proposals.
“I think everything is on the table. I think the White House is certainly supportive of Congress doing their part. I think there are things we’d like to see happen through legislation. … But certainly there is a role for executive action,” said Adzi Vokhiwa, director of federal affairs at Giffords, an anti-gun violence advocacy group.
The meeting comes as gun sales are on the rise across the U.S., which has been attributed to the concerns that Biden will act on gun control and amid fear and uncertainty around the pandemic and protests over racial injustice.
Sunday was the third anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. Rice and Richmond held a call Thursday with most of the families of the victims of the shooting, a White House official said, and listened to stories about their loved ones and work they’ve pursued since the shooting.
Biden, who visited Parkland to comfort victims’ families in 2018, pledged during his presidential campaign to take numerous actions to try to curb gun violence. He vowed to pass legislation banning the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and buy back the ones already in circulation. The president’s campaign website also said he would “enact universal background check legislation.”
“This meeting provided more evidence that the Biden Administration is committed to being the strongest we’ve ever seen on gun safety,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, of Wednesday’s meeting. “With Covid making gun violence worse and armed extremists literally holding our democracy at gunpoint, the time for action is now — and we fully expect to see it soon.”
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, also released a statement on the White House meeting, saying it confirmed that gun safety is a top priority for the administration.
“We look forward to working with the administration to save lives and stop gun violence, and we’re confident that we will see executive and legislative action in the near future,” she said.
The White House is still staffing up and has yet to nominate a head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which enforces gun laws. Both are a sign that the administration is still some time away from formally putting anything forward on guns, sources said.
Biden has repeatedly been involved in efforts to pass stricter gun laws dating back to his time in the Senate. He helped pass the Brady Bill in 1993, which implemented the modern background check system that advocates are now pushing to reform, and he helped pass the original assault weapons ban.
Through executive orders, Biden could change or expand the definition of who is in the business of selling guns, prioritize funding for community violence prevention programs and eliminate “ghost guns” by defining what constitutes a gun, according to gun control advocates.
The term ghost guns refers to guns available for purchase, typically without a background check or a serial number, that are not fully finished or may have a missing part.
Momentum has repeatedly hit a wall in Congress, even as mass shootings become commonplace in the United States. Congress failed to pass stronger gun laws after the Sandy Hook shooting, when Biden was vice president, and initial optimism fell by the wayside following back-to-back massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in 2019.
While Democrats control the House, the party would need all 50 members in the Senate to rally around gun legislation and be joined by at least 10 Republican senators to overcome the legislative filibuster. A bill proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) after the Sandy Hook shooting only garnered 54 votes.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), an active voice on gun control ever since the Sandy Hook shooting in his home state, told The Hill he plans to introduce background check legislation “in the upcoming weeks” and is committed to getting a bipartisan bill passed in this Congress.
“President Biden and his administration are clearly committed to signing commonsense gun violence prevention legislation into law and taking executive action to save lives and make our communities safer. Two years ago, we got pretty darn close to striking a bipartisan deal to expand background checks that I believe would have passed on the floor if [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell put it up for a vote,” Murphy said.
The Democratic-led House last Congress passed control gun legislation, but those bills never received votes in the GOP-controlled Senate.
That bill, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, is aimed at strengthening background checks for gun purchases and passed the House on Feb. 27, 2019. A day later, the House approved the Enhanced Background Checks Act, which would close the so-called Charleston loophole, giving federal investigators more time to do background checks.
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who authored the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, has not yet reintroduced it this Congress. But the bill is expected soon.
“The White House is definitely committed to gun violence prevention and Mike’s top priority on this issue is the Bipartisan Background Checks Act. We are still actively working with leadership and advocates on timing of that bill,” a Thompson aide said.
Assault weapon ban legislation to prohibit the sale of semi-automatic rifles and pistols with certain military-style features was also introduced last Congress by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.).
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), another vocal gun control advocate, noted that passing background checks in the House last Congress was the first legislative action to prevent gun violence in decades.
“While the bill to expand background checks received bipartisan support, it was unfortunately blocked by Mitch McConnell in the U.S. Senate. Now, with a new Congress and White House, I know that action to prevent gun violence remains a top priority for President Biden and Democrats in Congress,” Kildee told The Hill.
Democrats are also looking to take advantage of the weakened National Rifle Association (NRA). The once powerful pro-gun lobbying group filed for bankruptcy last month following a lawsuit that alleged it violated New York state law governing nonprofit organizations.
“It will be up to these millions of law-abiding gun owners, and millions of NRA members, to make their voices heard in opposition to any infringement upon their constitutional rights,” the group wrote in response to comments from White House press secretary Jen Psaki last week that Biden “would love to see action on additional gun safety measures.”
Democrats point to public polling to argue that basic actions intended to limit gun violence, such as universal background checks, are overwhelmingly popular.
Still, former President Trump’s vow to protect his supporters’ Second Amendment rights was one of his reliable applause lines on the trail in 2020. The Gallup poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans favor stricter laws for gun sales, the lowest percentage in 20 years. Conservatives are likely to ardently object to any effort that is perceived as taking guns away from Americans and use it to fuel their base heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated Rep. Kildee’s position. He is an advocate for gun control.