The White House Rose Garden was an idyllic setting on Thursday — incongruously so, given the brutal problem being addressed. There, President Biden announced a slate of executive actions to combat what he called an “epidemic” of gun violence.
“Let me say it again,” he told the assembled mothers and fathers of children horrifically killed at Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla. “Gun violence in this country is an epidemic.” Those gathered signaled their approval with applause as Biden added that, what’s more, “it is an international embarrassment.”
Biden ran as a gun control candidate, someone with a record of both successes and failures on the issue. As a senator, he helped pass the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act in 1993 and the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. He could not get more comprehensive changes into law as vice president.
“I know it’s painful and frustrating that we haven’t made the progress that we’d hoped for,” Biden admitted Thursday as cherry blossoms swayed in the spring breeze behind him. “But it took five years to get the Brady bill passed, and it took even more years to work to pass the assault weapons ban. And it saved lives.”
His message, now as president, is that he is willing to work with Congress, but he is also moving on his own. Flanked by Vice President Harris and Attorney General Merrick Garland, Biden announced half a dozen actions.
He will tighten regulations around “ghost guns” — firearms assembled by hobbyists from parts that often lack serial numbers — requiring that buyers go through a background check. He also called on the Department of Justice to propose a rule that could outlaw pistol brace devices, specialty slings that replace standard stocks, like the one used last month in a Boulder, Colo., mass shooting.
Biden also ordered the DOJ to issue an annual report on firearms trafficking and to draft legislative templates for states to follow in passing “red flag” laws that would allow family members or law enforcement to remove firearms from anyone a court determined to be at risk to themselves or others.
The president also announced his intention to nominate David Chipman, a gun-control activist and law enforcement veteran, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
All of those actions, Biden argued, were meant to fulfill his duty to protect public safety. “My job, the job of any president, is to protect the American people,” he said. “Whether Congress acts or not, I’m going to use all the resources at my disposal … to keep the American people safe from gun violence.” In the end, though, he may be limited to what he can do from the Oval Office.
Republicans remain resolute in their opposition. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy promised as much before Biden even began his speech, tweeting that the GOP “will strongly oppose and pursue every option — be it legislative or judicial — to protect the right to keep and bear arms.”
Another thing that happened before the Rose Garden speech: an op-ed in the Washington Post. Sen. Joe Manchin wrote that that the filibuster is a “critical tool” in protecting “our democratic form of government.” The West Virginia Democrat, the most prominent swing vote in the upper chamber, added, “That is why I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.”
Manchin wasn’t talking about guns, per se. In fact, the moderate lawmaker has supported gun control in the past. But the op-ed signals a death knell for lingering liberal hopes that Senate Democrats had the votes to do away with the legislative filibuster, a necessary first step towards passing big ticket items like sweeping gun control legislation.
Biden either didn’t read the op-ed that morning or wasn’t ready to yield to the arithmetic: Democrats only have 50 votes in the chamber, 51 if Harris casts a tie-breaking vote. But the president still insisted that Congress must act. “They’ve offered plenty of thoughts and prayers,” he said, “but they’ve passed not a single new federal law to reduce gun violence. Enough prayers. Time for some action.”
While Biden has reiterated his position that assault weapons and high-capacity magazines should be banned, he called on lawmakers to send a bill to his desk expanding background checks. In particular, the president said the Senate should pass a House bill that closes the so-called “gun show loophole.” Here, he conflated two separate legal concepts.
“Most people don’t know it, you walk into a store and you buy a gun, you have a background check,” the president said. “But you go to a gun show, you can buy whatever you want and no background check.”
Commercial firearm sales require background checks, whether they occur at a gun show or elsewhere. In addition, federal law banning the sale of certain firearms, such as automatic weapons, without a special license, applies everywhere.
Private individuals are allowed under federal law to sell firearms without a background check. And while these sales can occur at gun shows, federal prohibitions still apply. (In certain states, even the private sale of legal firearms also requires a background check.)
“Joe Biden is either lying, never bought a gun at a gun show, or both,” Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, tweeted.
And others were quick to point out the apparent discrepancy between the president’s words and federal law. “He said gun shows are exempt from background check requirements,” tweeted Stephen Gutowski, a writer at the conservative Free Beacon and licensed gun safety instructor. “That is completely false. All that matters in terms of background checks is whether you are buying from a licensed dealer or not.”
When RealClearPolitics asked if the president believed that individuals could buy “whatever you want” without a background check, contrary to federal law, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “No, it’s not his belief.”
Pressed further, Psaki added, “Well, we know what his position is, right? So let me reiterate that, which is that background checks are something that should be universal.”
While the president insisted that his position was in line with the Second Amendment, pro-gun groups weren’t having it. “Biden announced multiple extreme gun control actions. These actions could require law-abiding citizens to surrender lawful property, and push states to expand gun confiscation orders,” the National Rifle Association said in a statement posted to social media. “Biden also nominated a gun control lobbyist to head ATF. NRA is ready to fight.”
The White House push comes not just after recent mass shootings in Boulder and Atlanta, but on the same day one occurred in Bryan, Texas. Ghost guns are part of the new focus, with gun-control groups warning that 3D printing may allow the proliferation of untraceable firearms.
When RealClearPolitics asked if the administration had official figures on how often these kinds of guns were used in a crime, Psaki responded that she would “get you some data.” A White House official later passed along publicly available numbers from the District of Columbia, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. According to the D.C. Attorney General’s Office, Metropolitan Police recovered three ghost guns in 2017, 25 in 2018, and 116 in 2019. Baltimore City Police reported confiscating 126 ghost guns in 2020. That same year, authorities in Los Angeles said they recovered more than 700 ghost guns.
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