Biden has limited options, but there are some things he can do on guns
Even though President Biden has nearly exhausted his options to confront gun violence with executive action, advocates and allies say there are a few steps he could take in the wake of horrifying mass shootings in Buffalo and Texas.
The limited possibilities include stepping up enforcement of existing laws or looking to health agencies to address gun violence as a public health issue.
But the administration and advocates alike say such steps are minimal compared to the actions Congress could take through legislation to reduce gun violence.
Biden has pressed for the Senate to take a vote on background check legislation that could make it tougher for people to get guns. Even stronger measures such as a ban on assault weapons — previous legislation expired nearly two decades ago, in 2004 — could do even more to make the mass shootings plaguing the country less common, based on the experiences in other countries.
But any kind of assault weapons ban seems like a non-starter in the Senate, and even the background checks legislation faces a very difficult road.
Those realities have frustrated Biden as much as the wider public, say people close to the White House.
“I think he’s just angry, as a lot of us are, that there is just an inability to do anything at all – I mean zilch, nothing,” said Doug Jones, the former Democratic senator from Alabama who more recently served in the White House to help guide the Supreme Court confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Advocates say there is value in the smaller steps Biden could take through executive action, including through a declaration that gun violence is a public health emergency.
“This should be an all-government, all-hands-on-deck approach to solve this issue, and that includes the health agencies,” said Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign.
She said Biden should declare the emergency and have Surgeon General Vivek Murthy write a report that lays out methods to reduce gun violence. Such a report could help guide a more fulsome public health approach to the scourge of gun violence in the U.S., Brown said, noting that most of Biden’s actions have come out of the Justice Department.
Another step Biden could and should take through executive action, said Lindsay Nichols, the federal policy director at the gun control group Giffords, is to eliminate background check loopholes, including the so-called “boyfriend loophole” which allows individuals convicted of domestic abuse to buy and own firearms in certain cases.
Nichols also called for the Department of Justice to scale up its anti-gun trafficking strike forces launched last year in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the San Francisco and Sacramento regions, as well as Washington, D.C. By expanding to other cities, she argued, the groups would be able to have a greater impact.
“These incremental steps do help. But they’re not enough,” Nichols said. “And it is frustrating when there are clear actions Congress should take that the American public wholeheartedly supports.”
The administration has also faced pressure from some corners to form an office at the White House dedicated to addressing gun violence, but it’s unclear precisely where Biden currently stands on the idea.
“I think they were considering that even before Buffalo,” said Brown. “I’m sure there is additional focus on that now.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was peppered with questions on Thursday about the administration’s strategy. She offered few clues beyond saying that the White House was “always looking to do more,” but indicated the administration is primarily looking for action from Congress.
She also insisted that Biden’s domestic policy adviser Susan Rice is already leading a “whole-of-government approach” to gun violence.
“Look, the president has done a lot. He really has,” she said. “We’re always looking at what else we can do.”
Biden, she added, “cannot solve this problem alone.”
Polls have shown in the nearly 10 years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that majorities of Americans support expanded background checks and other limits on purchasing guns.
A Politico-Morning Consult poll conducted Wednesday found 88 percent of respondents support background checks on all gun sales, and 67 percent support banning assault weapons, something Biden has called on Congress to enact.
Some wanted to see Biden get more involved in pushing the Senate to hold immediate votes on House-passed gun legislation, arguing that even though the votes would almost certainly fail due to GOP opposition that Republican senators would be put on the record.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is holding back on votes to give space to bipartisan negotiations on gun legislation, though hope is slim that those talks will bear fruit. Jean-Pierre said Thursday that Biden would defer to Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the mechanics of the legislative negotiations.
“I’m going to always see a glimmer of hope because I know people enough to know that this has affected them personally,” said Jones, who came into the Senate just before a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla. “I would say though it’s probably just a glimmer.”
After shootings in Atlanta; Boulder, Colo; and South Carolina, Biden last month announced a long-awaited regulation targeting the use and distribution of ghost guns, which are assembled by an individual and are difficult to trace. The Department of Justice also announced new task forces to combat gun trafficking in several major cities.
And Biden has put an emphasis on getting a confirmed leader atop the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which is tasked with enforcing the nation’s gun laws.
The Justice Department last year at Biden’s direction published model red flag legislation to be used as a starting point for states implementing the laws, which allow authorities or family members to go through the courts to take weapons away from individuals who are believed to pose a threat to themselves or others.
Red flag laws are once again at the center of negotiations among senators in the wake of the Texas shooting, though previous talks on red flag legislation have failed to produce results.
The White House is optimistic that its ATF nominee Steve Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor, can win the 50 votes needed to be confirmed. Dettelbach had a Senate hearing on Wednesday, one day after the Texas shooting, where he pushed back on GOP concerns about politicizing the agency. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who helped sink Biden’s first nominee, said he would support him.
“The Senate should confirm him without delay, without excuse,” Biden said Wednesday. “Send the nomination to my desk. It’s time for action.”
Executive power has its limits, and Biden’s authority and influence have been tested throughout his presidency by this and other crises.
His administration has rigorously prepared executive actions on a range of policy fronts, seeking to ensure they can stand up to legal disputes from Republican challenges in conservative courts.
But some advocates believe that Biden can be more aggressive with his actions on guns, such as by attempting to regulate assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.
“Even a temporary fix is better than allowing this to happen day by day,” said Youth Over Guns executive director Luis Hernandez, who called on Biden to ban assault weapons through executive action. “We challenge the president to lean into his power.”
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