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Biden Lays Out Aggressive Agenda on Gun-Control

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 6 days ago Susan Milligan
Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: President Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks about gun violence prevention in the Rose Garden at the White House, Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) © (Andrew Harnik/AP) President Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks about gun violence prevention in the Rose Garden at the White House, Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Calling gun violence in American an "international embarrassment," President Joe Biden on Thursday outlined a series of executive actions and a legislative wish list he said would save lives and have the support of rank-and-file Americans.

"No amendment to the Constitution is absolute," Biden said, addressing complaints that rules to limit how guns are sold or who can own them violate the Second Amendment. "You can't yell 'fire' in a crowded movie theater and call it freedom of speech. From the beginning, you couldn't own any weapon you wanted to own."

With an array of gun control activists behind him – including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whose congressional career ended after she was shot in the head, and parents of children killed by firearms – Biden called gun violence an "epidemic" he was determined to thwart.

Much of what Biden announced Thursday will be met with unilateral actions by the executive branch, an acknowledgment of the near-impossibility of getting even minor gun control legislation passed by Congress.

They include a proposed Justice Department rule to stop "ghost guns," firearms made from kits that include all the components needed to make a gun – but no serial number law enforcement could use to track down criminals if one of the firearms is recovered at a crime scene.

"Anyone from a criminal to a terrorist can buy this kit," Biden said.

The Justice Department will also issue a rule about stabilizing braces, which Biden said effectively turns a pistol into a short-barreled rifle that would be subject to rules under the National Firearms Act. The mass shooter at a Boulder, Colorado, market reportedly used such a brace, enabling him to shoot more efficiently.

Further, the Justice Department will write up a template for states to pass "red flag" laws, which allow family members or law enforcement to petition a court to keep guns away from people shown to be a danger to themselves or others.

Biden also urged Congress to pass universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons – the latter a legislative item he achieved in the 1990s when he was a U.S. senator from Delaware but which was undone with successful pressure from the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates.

That call is likely to go nowhere anytime soon. Congress declined to pass gun legislation when it had much stronger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. It also voted down universal background checks after one of the most shocking mass shootings in recent American history, when 20 elementary school children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Even with a recent spate of mass shootings – most notably the Boulder event and the shooting of largely Asian Americans in Georgia – there is no evidence the vast majority of Republicans and a couple of rural Democrats will approve any kind of gun control law.

"The right to keep and bear arms is fundamental for preserving our liberty," Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, tweeted during Biden's Rose Garden remarks. "The answer is not to restrict the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens, the answer is to go after violent criminals and come down on them like a ton of bricks."

Biden's proposal is politically audacious, since it goes to a cherished Republican priority just as the president is seeking GOP support for a less-partisan issue: infrastructure. Republicans have come out overwhelmingly against the president's $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan, citing its price tag and expansive definition of "infrastructure," but the issue itself is not polarizing.

Biden also returned to what is becoming a common theme: casting GOP lawmakers as out of touch with the American people.

The president said the vast majority of Americans favor background checks – a claim backed up by numerous polls showing nearly 9 out of 10 Americans support the idea.

"Let me be clear: This is not a partisan issue among the American people." Biden said, repeating the same argument he made in pitching his coronavirus relief bill (which passed) and more recently, his infrastructure package.

Vice President Kamala Harris, introducing Biden, made a similar argument.

"What are we waiting for? 'Cause we aren't waiting for a tragedy, I know that," Harris said. "We aren't waiting for solutions, 'cause the solutions exist, they already exist. People on both sides of the aisle want action. ... So all that is left is the will and the courage to act."

Biden has an advantage now in that the chief foe of gun control efforts – the NRA – is undergoing historic troubles. The group has filed for bankruptcy and paid $2.5 million in fines in a settlement last August after New York State Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the group, long one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.

But the president faces some strong headwinds as well. Republicans on the Hill are not eager to give him a win, and the gun issue helps them reinforce a culture war with Democrats – helpful to the GOP when Biden's spending plans are getting solid public support.

Biden's plan also calls for the confirmation of David Chipman as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – a position that has not been held by a confirmed nominee since 2015. That confirmation is not assured, as Chipman works as a senior policy adviser at Giffords, the former congresswoman's eponymous gun control group.

An array of federal agencies, meanwhile, have been directed to use existing funding to steer more money and attention to community violence intervention programs.

"The Department of Justice alone cannot solve the problem. Gun violence is not a problem that law enforcement alone can solve," Attorney General Merrick Garland said at the Rose Garden event.

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