U.S. President Joe Biden is doing battle with his country’s gun violence problem, unveiling a string of executive actions meant to crack down on self-assemble firearms and pistol stabilizing braces, and imploring Congress pass long-delayed legislation to ban assault weapons and ensure all gun buyers face background checks.
But while gun-control advocates said Mr. Biden’s efforts would be effective in tackling the growing problem of “ghost guns” – weapons without serial numbers that come in build-it-yourself kits – the prospect of broader reforms moving through a deadlocked Senate appear slim.
“Today, we’re taking steps to confront not just the gun crisis, but what is actually a public-health crisis,” the President said in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday, to a group of gun violence survivors. “Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it’s an international embarrassment.”
The move comes amid a spike in gun violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, and on the heels of mass shootings in Georgia, Colorado and South Carolina; on Thursday at an office park in Texas, a gunman mowed down at least five people.
Mr. Biden’s actions will require major components in ghost-gun kits be stamped with a serial number, and that people buying them undergo a background check. People buying stabilizing braces, which improve aim and can make a pistol function more like a rifle, will also now have to submit their names to the Department of Justice.
Other presidential orders will increase funding for anti-violence programs and create a national template for red flag laws that state governments can adopt. Such legislation, which already exists in some states, allows courts to take away the guns of people deemed prone to violence.
Mr. Biden asked Congress to close major loopholes in the current laws: one that allows people to buy guns at gun shows without undergoing background checks, and another that allows gun buyers to receive their firearm automatically if a background check takes too long. He also asked for legislators to reinstitute a ban on military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines he helped enact as a senator in 1994.
And he called for the repeal of a 2005 law that protects gun makers from being sued when their guns are used to shoot people. Such a liability shield, he said, had allowed the gun lobby to avoid taking the problem seriously.
“This is the only outfit that is exempt from being sued. If I get one thing on my list – the Lord came down and said, ‘Joe, you get one of these’ – give me that one,” the President said. “Because I tell you what, there would be a come-to-the-Lord moment these folks would have real quickly.”
The Democratic-controlled House has already passed legislation expanding background checks. But it faces major hurdles in the Senate. The chamber is evenly divided between the two parties, so Democrats would have to win 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster.
Still, Mr. Biden’s executive orders could make it easier for police to track guns used in crimes back to their source. In 2019, police in Washington said they had recovered 115 ghost guns, compared with 25 the previous year and three the year before that. And according to The Trace, which tracks gun violence, nearly one-third of guns recovered by federal law enforcement in California in 2019 were weapons without serial numbers.
“Their use has been growing. They’re completely untraceable if they’re found by police or used in a violent crime,” said Jasmeet Sidhu, a gun-control researcher with Amnesty International.
Since the 1994 ban on assault weapons, which expired after a decade, U.S. efforts at gun control have repeatedly failed. Bills to expand background checks and ban assault weapons after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school were blocked in the Senate. A ban on bump stocks enacted by the Trump administration in 2019 was struck down last month in federal court.
Meanwhile, gun violence became worse over the past year, despite pandemic-induced drops in overall crime. Numbers compiled by the Gun Violence Archive showed 611 mass shootings – defined as a shooting involving four or more people – last year in the U.S., compared with 417 in 2019.
Vice-President Kamala Harris on Thursday lamented the repetitive nature of the debate, even as the deaths continue unabated.
“We have all asked ‘What are we waiting for?’ Because we aren’t waiting for a tragedy, I know that – we’ve had more tragedy than we can bear. We aren’t waiting for solutions, either, because the solutions exist,” she said. “All that is left is the will and the courage to act.”
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