In April 2013, Gabrielle Giffords was sitting with then-Vice President Joe Biden in his Capitol office as the bipartisan bill that would have expanded background checks for gun owners failed in the Senate.
It was just two years after she had been shot in the head during a mass shooting, and the former congresswoman was furious at Congress’s failure to enact meaningful reform, says Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun violence prevention group named in her honor. Ambler says Biden assured her that some day, Congress would have the will to act on gun control. “Don’t worry,” Biden said. “The country will be so upset that there will ultimately be progress in building your movement.”
Nearly eight years later, the movement has taken off, but progress remains elusive. And Biden, now President, is facing pressure to act. Gun violence prevention is entrenched in the national political debate as mass shootings have continued to plague the country, but the federal government has not implemented major reforms. Even though Biden ran for president on a gun control platform that activists hailed as the strongest in history, he has not taken any executive action on gun control since taking office. And in the wake of two shooting sprees in Atlanta, Georgia and Boulder, Colorado this month that left 18 people dead, calls for reform from both activists and members of his own party are already intensifying. The question now is whether Biden can deliver on his promises.
“The Administration is dealing with many crises. We knew that when they came in,” says Shannon Watts, who founded the advocacy group Moms Demand Action. “But at this point, gun violence is a pandemic within a pandemic. And we do need the Administration to act.”
Speaking from the State Dining Room in the White House on Tuesday, Biden called on lawmakers to reform background checks for gun purchases. “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common sense steps that will save lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act,” Biden said during a 8 minute address. He pointed to two House bills that have already passed that would expand the use of background checks and other measures, and he urged senators to approve the bills. “The United States Senate, I hope some are listening, should immediately pass bills that close loopholes in the background check system,” Biden said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday the Senate would vote on both bills. But with an evenly-divided Senate, many are skeptical Democrats will garner the requisite 60 votes to pass the bills into law. That puts even more pressure on Biden to handle things himself. As a candidate, Biden promised to use executive authority to ban the importation of assault weapons, and said he would approach gun violence as a “public health epidemic”— two campaign pledges activists are now demanding he honor.
Top Biden advisers including Susan Rice, who directs the Domestic Policy Council, and Cedric Richmond, who runs the Office of Public Engagement, met with gun violence prevention groups in February to discuss potential actions at both the executive and legislative levels. In a statement after their meeting, the White House said they talked about ways to stop the spread of ghost guns— guns that can be assembled at home that do not require background checks— implementing universal background checks, and expanding community violence intervention programs.
“We are certainly considering a range of levers, including working through legislation, including executive actions,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday, to address “gun safety measures” and “violence in communities.”
But nothing has materialized yet. Among gun control activists, the deadly shootings in Atlanta and Boulder have not only reinforced the need for the Biden Administration to step in, but also intensified simmering frustrations from years of inaction. Some activists have privately questioned the White House’s commitment to quickly taking executive actions on guns, and are angry that the Administration has not installed an official to specifically handle gun violence prevention, according to one source familiar with the situation. Others are disappointed that the Administration has not confronted this issue the way it has taken on climate change, another source says, an issue which has already been the subject of several executive orders and a robust interagency response.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
State officials are also ramping up pressure on the Biden Administration. On March 22, 18 states, led by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking him to close the “ghost gun” loophole, which would effectively allow ghost guns to be regulated like firearms. “Congress has previously considered bills that would close this loophole. However, ATF need not—and should not—wait for Congress to act to close off criminals’ illegal access to untraceable firearms,” the Attorneys General wrote. “Existing law provides you all the authority you need; you can begin the process of issuing rulemaking today to reverse this erroneous interpretation and close this loophole.”
Gun control groups have long considered Biden an ally, which makes his slow start on the issue as president all the more frustrating to some. Biden’s platform on gun control during his 2020 campaign was an extension of his progressive record on the issue from over half a century in public life. He ran television ads in Nevada during the 2020 Democratic primaries that highlighted the 2017 Mandalay Bay Hotel shooting in Las Vegas, NV that killed 60 people, to show Biden’s record pushing for gun restrictions. He frequently pointed to two instances in which he prevailed over the National Rifle Association (NRA): his role in passing the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which created a federal background check system, and his work the following year with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, to pass a 10-year ban on military-style rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines. (The ban expired in 2004 and Congress did not renew it.) He also touted how, in the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama asked him to spearhead a raft of actions which included making it harder to buy gunsat gun shows and bolstering the background check system. This record helped earn him the endorsement of gun violence prevention groups like Brady PAC and Everytown for Gun Safety.
Publicly, gun control activists are still praising the Administration, cognizant of the fact that Biden is focused on combatting the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis. But with gun violence reemerging at the forefront of the national conversation, they believe that they could start to see action from Biden in the next few weeks.
“I know the Administration is taking the time to get this right, and they’re being very intentional about examining the options and doing something that is smart and impactful,” says Ambler of gun violence prevention group Giffords. “It’s not just winning the political fight and winning the message fight, it’s about having a governing agenda, which each and every day is going to be moving the ball forward.”