Biden Seeks Assault Weapons Ban and Background Checks
After the second mass shooting in a week, the president said tighter gun laws should not be a partisan issue, but Republicans in Congress showed little interest in Democratic proposals.
In brief, somber remarks from the White House, Mr. Biden called on the Senate to pass a ban on assault weapons and to close background check loopholes, saying that doing so would be “common sense steps that will save lives in the future.”
WASHINGTON — Faced with the second mass shooting in a week, President Biden and Democrats on Capitol Hill called on Tuesday for fast action to enact stricter gun laws, a plea that was immediately met with a blockade of opposition by Republicans.
“This is not and should not be a partisan issue — it is an American issue,” Mr. Biden said. “We have to act.”
His demand for action was the latest in what has become a doleful ritual in Washington: making a renewed call for gun safety legislation after a deadly shooting, this one at a Colorado grocery store where 10 people, including a police officer, were killed on Monday.
“There’s not a big appetite among our members to do things that would appear to be addressing it, but actually don’t do anything to fix the problem,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican.
But while polling regularly shows broad support for tighter gun laws and specific policies like a ban on assault weapons, Republicans in Congress remained all but immovable on the issue, repeating longstanding arguments on Tuesday that gun violence should be addressed through steps like more policing rather than limiting gun rights.
President Barack Obama was unable to win passage of tighter gun legislation even after the shootings in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which left 20 children and six adults dead. Since then, there has been little progress at the federal level, even as the epidemic of gun violence has raged on.
As a senator, Mr. Biden was a prominent supporter of the original assault weapons ban in 1994, which expired a decade later and has never been renewed. Since then, Mr. Biden has been involved in other gun control proposals that have gone nowhere in Congress, and he was described by aides as realistic about the difficulty of passing any meaningful legislation this time around.
“Another American city has been scarred by gun violence and the resulting trauma,” the president said.
Proponents of tighter gun laws said they hoped the latest shootings would push the Biden administration to action.
When asked by a reporter whether he had the political capital to move forward with gun safety measures, the president expressed uncertainty. “I hope so,” he said, crossing his fingers. “I don’t know. I haven’t done any counting yet.”
“It’s understandable that addressing the pandemic came first,” Mr. Feinblatt said, “but in the face of rising crime rates and two mass shootings in less than a week, the Biden administration now has to govern like it is the strongest in history on gun safety.”
“I don’t think there’s any question that passing gun safety legislation is unfinished business for Biden,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization, noting Mr. Biden’s record on the issue in the Senate and the role he played in developing the Obama administration’s response after the Sandy Hook massacre.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, an outspoken voice on gun control, said that Congress’s inaction had made lawmakers “complicit” in allowing “completely predictable” violence go unchecked. He sounded a note of optimism, citing Mr. Biden’s personal commitment to the issue.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers quickly splintered along partisan lines.
House Democrats passed two bills this month aimed at expanding and strengthening background checks for gun buyers by applying them to all gun buyers and extending the time the F.B.I. has to vet those flagged by the national instant check system.
“This time feels different,” Mr. Blumenthal said on Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “The dawn of a new era, with a president completely committed to gun violence prevention. I know from having heard him privately and publicly that he shares this passion. So do majorities now — in the House and the Senate.”
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said that he was “open to the discussion” around gun control measures, but that he was opposed to the two House-passed bills.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, vowed on Tuesday to put the bills to a vote on the Senate floor, and Mr. Biden urged their passage while also calling for a new assault weapons ban. The gunman in the Colorado shooting was armed with both a military-style semiautomatic rifle and a pistol.
Even before the recent shootings, Democrats had begun advancing stricter gun control measures that faced long odds in the 50-to-50 Senate. But even with unified Democratic control, speedy congressional action seems as elusive as ever.
“What I’m not attracted to is something that doesn’t work, and there have been deep-seated philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats about how to deal with gun violence,” he said.
Aware of the challenges of passing new gun laws, White House officials said, Mr. Biden has since taking office been pressing aides on what can be done to strengthen existing legislation with presidential authority.
The twin pieces of legislation passed in the House have been deemed ineffective and too expansive by most Republicans; only eight House Republicans voted to advance the universal background check legislation. The bills would almost certainly not muster the 60 votes needed to clear a filibuster in the Senate.
Mr. Biden, who had helped pass the landmark Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act as well as the 10-year assault weapons ban while in the Senate, came back five weeks later with proposals for legislation and executive action, but the Obama administration’s push to pass a background check bill failed.
After the searing tragedy at Sandy Hook, Mr. Obama chose not to press ahead immediately with legislation. He instead asked Mr. Biden, then vice president, to put together a package of proposed measures.
Mr. Biden faces political gridlock on the issue despite longstanding public support for tighter gun laws, growing calls for action from many Democrats and the waning influence of the National Rifle Association.
“The failure to get legislation passed was one of Obama’s greatest regrets,” said Kris Brown, the president of Brady: United Against Gun Violence, a nonprofit group.
Mr. Biden said on Tuesday that it was wrong “to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common sense steps that will save the lives in the future.”
According to a Pew Research Center poll in 2019, growing proportions of Americans in both parties supported tighter gun laws. There was broad bipartisan support as well on some specific steps, including barring people with mental illnesses from buying guns. About 71 percent of Americans — including a slight majority of Republicans — favored banning high-capacity ammunition magazines, while 69 percent, including half of Republicans, backed an assault weapons ban.
“This tragedy just happened last night, so I would not expect a new proposal put forward under 24 hours,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Ohio, where the president promoted his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. While the administration has rolled out more than 30 executive orders in its first weeks, none of them addressed gun violence.
But the challenge for his administration will be figuring out how much political capital it is willing to expend on a politically intractable issue, given the other monumental crises it is simultaneously confronting.
One executive action under consideration is classifying “ghost guns,” which are kits that allow a buyer to assemble a fully functioning long gun or handgun, as firearms. Such a classification would require them to be serialized and subject to background checks.
For now, Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, and Cedric Richmond, the director of the office of public engagement, have been overseeing the administration’s planned executive actions on guns, as well as plans to provide more funding for gun violence prevention.
The administration is also working to fulfill Mr. Biden’s campaign promise of making a $900 million investment over eight years in programs that tackle community violence, officials said.
Gun violence prevention groups are also pushing the administration to define what it means to be “in the business” of selling guns. Under current law, people who are “in the business” of selling guns have to conduct a background check, but it does not define what that means.
Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, has a longstanding bipartisan proposal — written with Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania — to close legal loopholes that allow people who buy firearms at gun shows or on the internet to avoid background checks.
The limited prospects for passing even modest gun legislation this year were on display on Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Manchin said that he was interested in reviving the Manchin-Toomey legislation, but that he was opposed to the House-passed universal background check bill, citing its provision requiring checks for sales between private citizens. Separately, Mr. Toomey told reporters that he believed that additional changes would be required for his legislation with Mr. Manchin.
But the bill has been unable to muster the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. And Mr. Manchin — who as a moderate from a deeply conservative state is often in the position of deciding whether Democrats can push through their agenda in the evenly divided chamber — also opposes dismantling the legislative filibuster that requires most legislation to win 60 votes.
Glenn Thrush contributed reporting.
“I want to find something that can pass,” Mr. Toomey told reporters. “That probably would require something that’s a little bit different. We’ve got to see if we can figure out how to thread that needle.”