As vaccination rates increase and states loosen COVID-19 guidelines, the return to "normal life" in America parallels an uptick in mass shootings and gun violence. These disasters once again spark the debate concerning gun control and reform. On April 7, President Joe Biden held a small ceremony at the White House to unveil six executive actions on what the administration calls the “Gun Violence Public Health Epidemic.” President Biden referred to the decades-long crisis as an “epidemic and an international embarrassment.” Specifically, he referenced the recent mass shootings in Boulder, which claimed the lives of 10, and Atlanta, where eight were killed, including six Asian-American women. These six executive actions signify Biden’s willingness to tackle the epidemic, but serve as a reminder of his limited power as head of state and the exasperating battle between lawmakers along party lines on Capitol Hill.
The Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection and research group, recorded more than 600 mass shootings in 2020. A mass shooting is defined by the Archive as a shooting with four or more people injured or killed, not including the gunman. There was a significant increase from 417 such shootings in 2019. As of April 16, there have been 147 mass shootings in 2021. While mass shootings become more and more frequent, the American public becomes more and more numb to the disasters. Near-constant media exposure and limited government response to persistent gun violence renders the gun reform debate painfully stagnant in the public discourse, mindset, and most significantly, on Capitol Hill.
Despite a Democratic House majority and a 50-50 split in the Senate—with Democrats holding a narrow majority due to Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tie-breaker—comprehensive gun reform is unlikely to progress beyond executive action. This stagnation exists because gun reform legislation would require 60 votes in the Senate to pass due to the filibuster. Democrats would have to retain their 50 votes in addition to persuading 10 Republican senators to sign the legislation. In our ultra-polarized party system, with a solid number of right-wing politicians closely aligned with gun lobbyists and the National Rifle Association, getting 10 Republicans on board seems nearly impossible.
Notably, the NRA spent $12.2 million across 145 congressional races in the 2020 elections alone to support pro-gun Republican candidates and oppose gun-reform Democrats. Remaining cognizant of this fact, and in the wake of the high-profile shootings this year, the Biden administration took matters into its own hands, stating that “this administration will not wait for Congress to act to take its own steps—fully within the administration’s authority and the Second Amendment—to save lives.”
Within the 30 days following the April 7 conference, the Biden administration will release a proposed rule to help stop the escalation of “ghost guns” in America. “Ghost guns” are built by individuals who purchase the materials and acquire the instructions, perhaps even together in a kit, to build the gun themselves. Additionally, these “ghost guns” often do not require a license. They are, therefore, very difficult to track by law enforcement as there is no serial number with a homemade firearm.
Biden also ordered an annual report on firearms trafficking issued by the Justice Department to happen in the 60 days following his announcement. The Justice Department issued similar reports in the past, but not since the year 2000. The Biden administration believes that gun trafficking patterns have most certainly changed in the past two decades, and view a new comprehensive report as a crucial tool for local and state jurisdictions to tackle the gun violence epidemic based on concrete evidence and trends.
Also in the next 60 days, the Biden administration will move to redefine guidelines for stabilizing braces, which were used by the Boulder gunman, and publish “red flag” model legislation for states to use. These “red flag” laws permit family or law enforcement to petition a court for a temporary ban on firearm purchases if an individual presents a danger to either him/herself or others. The Biden administration’s initial legislation provides a basis for states so they can craft their own legislation, but the president put pressure on Congress to pass widespread federal “red flag” laws as well.
However ambitious his executive actions are, they still fall short of several key Biden campaign trail promises concerning gun reform. Two aspects notably missing from these executive actions are a voluntary gun buyback program and a ban on importation of assault weapons. These issues would most likely fall on the legislative branch. In his speech, Biden encouraged Congress to take up matters such as closing loopholes for purchasing guns and banning high-capacity magazines as well as assault weapons. He called on the Senate to take up the two bills passed by the House in March of this year that would expand and strengthen background checks for gun sales and transfers. Although Republican legislators go against these bills, background checks poll extremely well with both Republican and Democrat voters. According to a Morning Consult/Politico survey, as of March 8, 2021, 84% of voters support measures that would require all gun purchasers to go through a background check.
President Biden also stressed in his speech that he would like to see Congress pass the Violence Against Women Act, which he sponsored in 1994 as then-Senator from Delaware and passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. However, most concretely as a result of the 2018-2019 government shutdown, the bill expired in February of 2019 and has yet to be renewed. A modernized revisal of the Violence Against Women Act was introduced in the House in March of this year, but has yet to garner the same bipartisan support as its predecessor did decades ago. Notably, in relation to gun reform, the new bill prioritizes closing loopholes in current federal domestic violence laws concerning firearms in an attempt to reduce the rate of domestic violence in this country.
The Biden administration will evidently waste no time addressing the gun violence and public health epidemic that continues to claim thousands of lives, especially in communities of color. However limited Biden is in his role as president, he has made it clear that he intends to confront the gun epidemic beyond just the normative “thoughts and prayers” given to the victims and survivors today. These executive actions make up the most ambitious gun reform plan of any modern president, and should be celebrated as an important, positive step. However, they remind the American people that executive orders are the only possible step right now as a direct result of extreme party politics and outside influences swaying members of Congress against gun reform, despite strong public support for strengthened measures. Demanding action from the legislative branch is an integral aspect of our contemporary civic duty, and wholly necessary if gun reform is ever going to be substantial enough to end the epidemic.