Will Biden be able to pass lasting gun reform?

Will Biden be able to pass lasting gun reform?
Source: Joshua Roberts, Reuters
In polls, support for stricter gun control laws has fairly consistently held at or above 50%. Yet, year after year, even the most broadly supported gun control measures do not pass through Congress.

On Sunday, April 18, there were two separate mass shootings in the United States: one in Shreveport, Louisiana, the other in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Those two unrelated events came on the heels of two mass shootings the day before, one in Columbus, Ohio, the other just outside New Orleans, Louisiana, roughly 350 miles away from Shreveport.

A mass shooting is defined as any shooting that has a minimum of four victims, either injured or killed, not including the shooter. There is little to connect those four shootings, other than that they are among the over 150 mass shootings that have already occurred in the country in 2021.

Mass shootings make the news regularly in the US, particularly when they involve a single shooter in a public space. And yet, many types of mass shootings, such as gang violence or incidences of domestic violence, tend to get ignored by national news coverage.

On average, mass shootings are daily occurrences in the US, a reality that makes the country unique among developed nations. Despite that, the perpetual debate over gun reform and gun control can appear to be one that will never be resolved. Commentators in the US often express doubt that the government can or will do anything to stem the tide.

In polls, support for stricter gun control laws has fairly consistently held at or above 50%, aside from a couple of dips during the presidency of Barack Obama. Even among gun owners, certain gun control measures, including enhanced background checks, receive strong support. Yet, year after year, even the most broadly supported gun control measures do not pass through Congress.

Many left-leaning politicians, among them, President Joe Biden, have long made gun control a central issue. During the 2020 campaign, Biden called gun violence “a public health epidemic” and vowed to “pursue constitutional, common-sense gun safety policies.” With Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress, it would appear that Biden is in a position to deliver on his promise.

President Biden’s stance on gun control

In a political career that has spanned more than five decades, Biden has shifted his views on some issues, including, potentially, the expansion of the Supreme Court. When it comes to gun control, though, the current president has remained consistent in his stance that background checks for gun purchases are necessary and that assault rifles should be banned.

During his time as a senator, Biden helped pass two of the nation’s most substantial gun reform laws: the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which requires background checks for gun purchases from official dealers. The second major law was a ban on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines (ammunition storage), which was part of Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill.

While both laws were praised as major breakthroughs at the time, they have also proven to have been significantly limited in their effectiveness.

The assault weapons ban was only ever designed to last 10 years and, after it expired, Congress never renewed it. Additionally, the Brady Act has numerous loopholes that allow buyers to legally get around background checks, including by purchasing guns at gun shows and online.

While campaigning for the presidency in 2020, Biden outlined a range of policy goals he hoped to enact on gun control. Among those policies was a universal background check legislation that would eliminate those many loopholes. In fact, Biden’s campaign said he would “enact legislation to prohibit all online sales of firearms, ammunition, kits, and gun parts.”

Biden’s campaign website also vowed that he would enact a new assault weapon ban that would be more sophisticated than the 1994 ban: “This time, the bans will be designed based on lessons learned from the 1994 bans. For example, the ban on assault weapons will be designed to prevent manufacturers from circumventing the law by making minor changes that don’t limit the weapon’s lethality.”

Other campaign promises included initiating a buyback program for getting guns out of communities and empowering the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to better regulate firearms and enforce existing laws. Biden also said he would address firearm suicides, which is the leading type of gun-related deaths.

What has President Biden done on gun control?

After a mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado on March 22, which resulted in 10 deaths, a USA Today/Ipsos poll found 65% of Americans favored stricter gun laws. That was a decline from 75% in 2018, but most of that decline was among Republican respondents, who as a rule are more skeptical of gun control laws. 90% of Democrats were in favor of stricter gun laws.

In the wake of the Boulder shooting, Biden called on the Senate to pass two laws that would expand background checks for guns. Those measures have already passed in the House, but both bills remain stalled in the Senate, where Democrats only have a one-vote advantage over Republicans. The two House bills would close many of the Brady Act loopholes.

In a statement on April 7, the Biden administration announced actions it would take “to address the gun violence public health epidemic.” Among them was a call for the Justice Department to examine ways to stop the proliferation of homemade guns, known as “ghost guns,” and arm brace mechanisms, “which can make a firearm more stable and accurate while still being concealable.”

The Biden administration also called on the Justice Department to craft “red flag” laws that could be adopted by the states. Such laws would “allow family members or law enforcement to petition for a court order temporarily barring people in crisis from accessing firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others.”

In the statement, the Biden administration announced the nomination of David Chipmen to be the new director for the ATF, a position that has been vacant since 2015. Chipman, a former ATF employee, has been praised by gun control advocates for his efforts in pushing for gun safety legislation.

Though Biden appears to be serious about taking concrete steps on gun control, any executive actions he takes on the issue will face legal challenges, particularly from the National Rifle Association (NRA), the US’ leading gun lobby.

Without legislative action in Congress, executive orders can only do so much. Additionally, the actions could be struck down by the conservative-leaning Supreme Court and the next president could simply get rid of them.

Biden may genuinely consider gun control a priority. However, unless most members of his party (including all 50 Senate Democrats) feel the same, there isn’t much likelihood of lasting gun control measures passing during this current Congressional term. For Biden’s gun control ambitions to have a chance, Democrats will either have to abolish the filibuster or hope they win more seats in 2022.

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