In an emotional plea to end the “epidemic” of gun violence, President Biden on Thursday announced his administration’s first steps to curb it, noting that “much more needs to be done” while also pressing Congress to close background check loopholes and ban assault weapons.
“We’ve got a long way to go, it seems like we always have a long way to go,” Mr. Biden said, acknowledging the limitations of measures he can pass through executive actions alone. “Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it’s an international embarrassment.”
Mr. Biden said the Justice Department would issue a proposed rule to stop the proliferation of so-called ghost guns — kits that allow a gun to be assembled from pieces with no serial numbers.
“I want to see these kits treated as firearms under the gun control act,” Mr. Biden said.
Ghost guns, experts said, have become particularly appealing to criminal organizations and right wing extremists who want access to untraceable firearms that do not require any background checks. They are often tied to shootings in states like California, which have instituted strict gun laws.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimated 10,000 ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement in 2019. Cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Diego, have seen significant increases in the number of ghost guns recovered every year since then.
Ghost guns have been a growing problem in the country, but are not disproportionately represented in the epidemic of mass shootings. Ghost guns were used in the 2013 mass shooting at Santa Monica College, which killed five people; a 2017 rampage in Northern California where a shooter killed his wife and four others; and the 2019 shooting at a California high school, where a 16-year-old killed two students and injured three others.
Mr. Biden also said he would make clear that when a device marketed as a stabilizing brace transforms a pistol into a short-barrel rifle, that weapon is subject to the requirements of the National Firearms Act. The gunman in the Boulder, Colo., shooting last month used a pistol with an arm brace, making it more stable and accurate, he said.
Mr. Biden said the Justice Department would also publish model “red flag” legislation for states. The measure would allow police officers and family members to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from people who may present a danger to themselves or others. While Mr. Biden cannot pass national red flag legislation without Congress, officials said the goal of the guidance was to make it easier for states that want to adopt it to do so now. The department also plans to release a comprehensive report on firearms trafficking, which it has not done since 2000.
“Red flag laws can stop mass shooters before they can act out their violent plans,” Mr. Biden said, noting he wanted to see a national red flag law.
Currently, 19 states and Washington, D.C., have passed their own red flag laws. And while Alaska and Wisconsin are currently considering passing their own measures, it’s not clear how many other states are interested in doing so. Experts said that many states that do not have red flag laws also do not have background check laws, and politically are unlikely to pass gun safety measures.
Outside of mass shootings, gun violence remains the leading cause of death for Black men between the ages of 15 and 34, Mr. Biden said in his remarks, noting that additional funding he has proposed for community violence programs can save lives.
“Gun violence in our neighborhood is having a profound impact on our children, even if they’re never involved in pulling the trigger or being the victim on the other side,” he said.
The initiatives do not match in scope his commitment to the issue over the course of his career, particularly his time as a senator. In 1993, Mr. Biden played a key role in the passage of the landmark Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. A year later, he helped authorize a 10-year ban on assault weapons.
Mr. Biden acknowledged there is only so much he can do without a partner in Congress. “This is just a start,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do,” calling gun violence a “blemish on the character of our nation.”
The House passed two gun control bills last month, but they are languishing in the Senate in the face of the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for passing most legislation, which requires the support of at least 10 Republicans. Mr. Biden called on the Senate to take action.
“They have offered plenty of thoughts and prayers, but they have passed not a single federal law to reduce gun violence,” Mr. Biden said. Enough prayers. Time for action.”
Merrick Garland, the attorney general, also said the A.T.F. would undertake a gun trafficking study, which it has not published in more than 20 years.
Also Thursday, Mr. Biden announced his nomination of David Chipman, a gun control advocate, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The bureau has not had a permanent director since 2015.
While Mr. Chipman’s selection came as welcome news to gun control groups, few nominees put forward by Mr. Biden have faced steeper odds of confirmation in the Senate, although his allies think he may be able to win narrow approval given the anguish over recent shootings.
In 2006, lawmakers allied with the National Rifle Association enacted a provision making the position of A.T.F. director, which had previously been a political appointment, subject to Senate confirmation. As a result, only one director, Obama nominee B. Todd Jones, has been confirmed over the last 15 years.