When news broke of a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, one year ago, President Joe Biden was on his way back from Tokyo following a major international summit.
Biden watched the news unfold on Air Force One, feeling, like others, horrified and heartbroken for the families, and deciding in that moment to speak upon returning to the White House, a White House official told CNN.
Moments after landing, a somber Biden – who had been in the Obama White House during the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School – walked into a briefing in the Oval Office and prepared an address he delivered that evening in the Roosevelt Room.
“I had hoped, when I became president, I would not have to do this again,” Biden said as he started the speech. He later visited Uvalde.
Over the last year, Biden has signed legislation called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act into law and implemented two dozen executive actions to try to reduce gun violence. And on Wednesday, Biden delivered remarks to mark the one-year remembrance of the Uvalde shooting.
“Remembering is important, but it’s also painful,” Biden said.
“Standing there in Uvalde, Jill and I couldn’t help but think that too many schools, too many everyday places have become killing fields in communities all across, every part of America. And in each place, we hear the same message: Do something. For God’s sake, just do something,” he added, urging Congress to pass gun safety laws.
But in the time since that visit to Uvalde, hundreds more mass shootings have gripped communities nationwide.
Mass shootings have become so common in the United States that the White House has framed their approach as akin to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hurricane response. Behind the scenes, administration officials have been developing ways in which the federal government can respond in the short and long term after a mass shooting, recognizing the physical, mental and economic ramifications.
“I think we’ve learned that the needs of these communities are really intense, and they also last long after the immediate hours and days after a mass shooting. If a hurricane devastates a community, you get that immediate White House response, but you also get FEMA deployed on the ground to provide direct services and support to survivors,” one source told CNN.
This recognition of the long after-effects of mass shootings has prompted discussions within the White House about additional measures, including earlier this month, when Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice gathered the first meeting of Cabinet officials and senior staff to discuss steps forward in responding to mass shootings, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
The reality officials were up against in that meeting came into sharp focus again less than 24 hours later, when another mass shooting unfolded – that time, in Allen, Texas.
“I don’t think we could feel more urgency than we did on [that] Friday. I think people feel this very deeply. We now work with so many communities that have experienced shootings. It’s devastating, of course, when another gets added to the list,” the source told CNN.
The Buffalo, New York, shooting last year at a local grocery story was an example of a tragedy that had unanticipated effects as it left a mostly Black community without a crucial grocery store for a period of time.
“For too long, when we’ve thought about mass shootings and gun violence in general, we’ve only thought about the individuals hurt or killed. What this administration does is certainly attend to survivors and the families of those who have been hurt, but they have a realization that a mass shooting or gun violence in general ripples through the community,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told CNN.
How the White House responds following a shooting
An operation kicks into gear within the walls of the White House the moment an alert pops up of a potential mass shooting.
The White House Situation Room and the National Security Council work with the Justice Department and other law enforcement, as well as the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, to track down information and gather the facts as they emerge. Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall will then brief Biden on what’s known about the situation and the weapon used, according to a White House official, acknowledging that it can be a fluid situation.
The Domestic Policy Council, meanwhile, assesses patterns and whether there are new lessons to be gleaned and considered in policy making. And the intergovernmental affairs team also races to reach out to the mayor’s office or other local officials to provide a point of contact at the White House.
Biden’s advisers keep him updated along the way. But the exasperation felt by White House officials after each mass shooting has been reflected in Biden’s statements, which have started with: “Once again.”
In an op-ed this month, Biden touted the work done by this administration, but called on Congress to do more.
“But my power is not absolute. Congress must act, including by banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, requiring gun owners to securely store their firearms, requiring background checks for all gun sales, and repealing gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability,” he wrote.
White House officials have also been sober about the political realities Democrats face with the current makeup of Congress, where Republicans in control of the House have rejected Biden’s calls for an assault weapons ban. Even when both chambers of Congress were controlled by Democrats during the first two years of Biden’s term, an assault weapon ban gained little traction, in part because of a 60-vote threshold necessary to advance bills through the Senate.
After three children and three adults were killed in a shooting at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville in March, Biden asserted that he’s done all he can to address gun control and urged members on Capitol Hill to act.
Many Republicans in Congress, including those in positions of leadership and in the Tennessee delegation, had either been reluctant to use the deadly violence in Nashville as a potential springboard for reform or they outright rejected calls for additional action on further regulating guns, arguing that there isn’t an appetite for tougher restrictions. Some Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, slammed House Republicans for their disinterest.
Advocacy groups have welcomed Biden’s executive actions and the administration’s response in the wake of a shooting, but stress there’s room for more.
“It’s part of what moves the needle. Seeing the movement at the federal level is encouraging,” said Mark Barden, co-founder and CEO of the Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund. “It’s something. It’s not everything. It’s not enough. We certainly need more.”