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. Their limited scope once again underscores Biden’s broader challenge as he faces an evenly split US Senate.
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 will announce 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, Colorado.
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.
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.”
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.
The President plans to reiterate his call Thursday for Congress to renew the assault weapons ban and will ask lawmakers to advance the two recently passed House bills that would close loopholes in the gun background check system. He will also urge members to close the “boyfriend” and stalking loopholes that would prohibit individuals convicted of assault, battery or stalking from purchasing or possessing firearms.
He will also ask 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 plans to announce more support for community violence interventions in urban communities amid a historic spike in homicides. And he will direct the Justice Department to issue an annual report on firearms trafficking in the hopes that data can better guide legislative solutions.
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 is laying 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.