President Joe Biden on Thursday harnessed the powers of the presidency to advance a half-dozen executive actions on gun control, but they fall far short of the ambitious goals he outlined as a presidential candidate as the real fight still looms on Capitol Hill.
The executive actions are aimed at taking certain guns out of the hands of criminals and pouring resources into community violence prevention, and a senior administration official cautioned that Thursday’s announcement is just an initial set of actions that the new President is taking.
Biden's First 100 Days
But their limited scope once again underscores Biden’s broader challenge as he faces an evenly split US Senate, which he challenged in his remarks from the White House Rose Garden.
“They can do it right now. They’ve offered plenty of thoughts and prayers, members of Congress, but they have passed not a single new federal law to reduce gun violence,” he said.
“Enough prayers,” he went on, “time for some action.”
The President finds himself staring at a harsh reality: lasting gun control reforms can only be achieved if Democratic members of Congress find consensus – not only through negotiations with their GOP colleagues but also within their own caucus, which has long been divided on this most fractious issue.
It is a policy area that has been at the top of the President’s agenda for decades. His lifetime of work on gun control has been bookended by one of his most significant legislative achievements – the 1994 assault weapons ban – and one of his deepest disappointments, the failure of background check legislation following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The initial list of executive actions that Biden announced doesn’t come close to the magnitude of either of those proposals or the sweeping changes many activists had hoped to see after the recent mass shootings that killed eight people at spas in Atlanta and 10 people at a supermarket in Boulder.
The morning of Biden’s planned announcement brought news of another tragedy, this time in South Carolina, where a local doctor and two children are among five killed in a mass shooting at a home in York County, according to authorities.
Gridlock on Capitol Hill
Democratic members of Congress held strategy sessions late last month to explore the most viable steps they could take on gun control, hoping to use public outrage about those recent shootings as a catalyst for legislative progress. Biden made his own plea to Congress not to wait “another” minute to take “common sense steps that will save lives.”
But once again Democrats’ chances for success will hinge on the cooperation of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who appears to be relishing his role as the lynchpin of virtually every legislative endeavor in the 50-50 divided Senate.
At this juncture, it remains unclear how much political capital either Biden or Manchin are willing to devote to gun control at a time when the nation is distracted by the pandemic, vaccine distribution, the economic recovery and Biden’s massive infrastructure bill, which is the administration’s primary focus at the moment.
Even when emotions were still running high after the Atlanta and Boulder shootings last month, Manchin made it explicitly clear to CNN that he did not support two gun bills recently passed by the House – one, H.R. 8, that would expand background checks on all firearm sales, and a second, H.R. 1446, closing the so-called Charleston Loophole that allows some licensed gun sales to be completed before a required background check is conducted.
Manchin said he still favored pressing ahead with the narrower compromise legislation expanding background checks that he crafted with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey after the Sandy Hook massacre. That legislation, which Biden advocated for as vice president, failed in 2013, and the new House-approved bills that Manchin opposes would go farther.
Beyond Manchin’s objections, there is no indication at this point that Democratic senators are on track to win the considerable GOP support they would need to overcome a filibuster on gun legislation. Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, told CNN’s Capitol Hill team late last month that there was “no timeline” for bringing the House-passed background check bills to the floor, adding that he and his colleagues were “working very, very hard to reach a consensus.”
In an op-ed for the Washington Post published Wednesday evening, Manchin reaffirmed that “there is no circumstance” in which he would vote “to eliminate or weaken the filibuster” – further dimming Democratic hopes of finding a workaround that would allow them to advance their agenda on guns without GOP support.
Biden targets ‘ghost guns’
As Biden well knows, that dream of consensus has long proved elusive for Democrats even after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary near Newtown, Connecticut, in December of 2012.
Biden has learned the hard way that even when public opinion about gun control is on his side – and even at a time when the power of the National Rifle Association has been weakened – public support for gun safety measures is not necessarily indicative of what actions Congress will take. In Gallup polling late last year, 57% of Americans said they believed the laws covering the sale of firearms should be more strict – a notable decline from March of 2018 when 67% of Americans held that view – and 34% said the laws should be kept as they are now.
The President reiterated his call Thursday for Congress to renew the assault weapons ban and asked lawmakers to advance the two recently passed House bills that would close loopholes in the gun background check system. He also urged members to close the “boyfriend” and stalking loopholes that would prohibit individuals convicted of assault, battery or stalking from purchasing or possessing firearms.
But with little reason for optimism about congressional action on gun control, Biden is moving ahead with actions he can take on his own. Among them is the announcement that he is nominating David Chipman to serve as the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, an agency that has not had a confirmed director since 2015. Chipman has established strong relationships with gun safety groups and serves as an adviser to the group led by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, one of the nation’s most prominent gun control advocates, who was shot in 2011 by a gunman at an event Tuscon, Arizona.
The Justice Department also announced rules intended to stop the proliferation of untraceable “ghost guns,” which can be assembled from kits within a half-hour and lack the serial number that allows law enforcement to trace them.
Biden also asked the Justice Department to place new restrictions on devices marketed as a stabilizing brace that allow a pistol to be transformed into a short-barreled rifle. Under the new rule, that kind of weapon – which makes it easier for a shooter to hit their target more accurately by adding stability – would be subject to the requirements of the National Firearms Act. The shooting suspect in Boulder used a pistol modified with an arm brace, according to a law enforcement source.
The President also asked the Justice Department to devise model “red flag” legislation that can be passed by state legislatures, which would allow family members or law enforcement officers to ask the court to bar a person in crisis from accessing firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others. The President is also in favor of a national “red flag” law, but the administration will urge states to act on their own in the absence of congressional movement on the issue.
The President announced more support for community violence interventions in urban communities amid a historic spike in homicides. And he directed the Justice Department to issue an annual report on firearms trafficking in the hopes that data can better guide legislative solutions.
During his campaign, Biden said he would use his executive authority to ban the import of assault weapons, that he would provide more adequate funding for the nation’s background check system and direct his attorney general within his first 100 days to outline steps for restructuring the ATF “to most effectively enforce our gun laws.”
As part of that ATF restructuring, Biden said as a candidate that he would work to “secure sufficient funds” for the Justice Department to enhance the department’s ability to enforce existing laws, including increasing the frequency of inspections of firearms dealers.
But with actions on the pandemic and infrastructure taking precedence, it is so far unclear whether those items will be part of his 100-day agenda.
The executive actions that the President laid out on Thursday may be just the first in a series of incremental steps on an issue of deep personal importance to Biden. But in such a challenging legislative landscape, incremental steps may be the only option that he has to advance his agenda on this endlessly polarizing issue.