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Biden’s Long, Frustrating History of Pushing for Gun Control

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As president, Joseph R. Biden Jr. finds himself in a position distressingly similar to the one he confronted eight years ago as vice president: trying to figure out a way to stop mass shootings and meeting resistance from conservative gun owners and their political allies.

In 2020, gun control was given a prominent place on Mr. Biden’s campaign website, but it had been a back-burner concern for a new administration single-mindedly determined to address the pandemic and its economic damage.

That could change following the attacks in Atlanta and Boulder, and if so, Mr. Biden’s successes and failures over the past three decades on gun control are likely to inform how he confronts the crisis as president.

President Barack Obama chose not to act immediately following the massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in 2012, as many Democrats had hoped, by pushing for a quick vote on gun control legislation.

Instead, he delegated the task of coming up with a package of reforms to Mr. Biden, who had helped pass the landmark Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and a 10-year assault weapons ban in the 1990s when he served in the Senate.

From his earliest days in the administration. Mr. Biden pushed Mr. Obama to do more on guns, to little avail, his advisers later said. “Even before Newtown, the vice president had wanted the administration to push harder on the issue,” Bruce Reed, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff as vice president, and still a trusted adviser, told a reporter in 2015.

The decision to tap Mr. Biden irked many of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers: They thought he needed to personally push through a series of strong measures immediately, while emotions were high, to force lawmakers to cast votes of conscience.

Five weeks after the killings, Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden announced 23 relatively modest executive actions, and called on Congress to pass three laws: universal background checks, a new assault weapons ban, and a prohibition on high-capacity gun clips.

Mr. Biden, consulting with his former colleagues in the Senate, decided the best course of action was to focus on only one element, the background checks, and persuaded progressives to settle for a limited but important initiative.

The strategy, and the bill, quickly failed.

“Eight years later, there have been plenty of thoughts and prayers, but we know that is not enough,” Mr. Biden said in December, marking the anniversary of Sandy Hook. “We will fight to end this scourge on our society and enact common sense reforms that are supported by a majority of Americans and that will save countless lives.”

Mr. Biden’s proposals, listed on his website, are strikingly similar to the reforms he proposed as vice president.

White House aides are considering a number of executive actions, including one that would impose background checks for buyers of homemade firearms that lack serial numbers, a proposal to close a loophole that allows a gun to be transferred from licensed gun dealers before a completed background check, and various plans to keep guns away from people suffering from mental illness.

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