Biden wants sweeping gun control, uphill political battle awaits

The US president wants a ban on assault weapons, but even universal background checks face a tough, but possible, path forward.

President Joe Biden speaks about the mass shooting in Colorado from the State Dining Room at the White House on March 23, 2021 [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

US President Joe Biden and other Democratic lawmakers are calling for new US gun control legislation in the wake of two mass shootings in less than a week, in which at least 18 people were killed.

“I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future,” Biden said on Tuesday at the White House.

Biden pointed to a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which allow for more bullets, and increased measures for the background check system riddled with loopholes as areas where Congress should pass new legislation.

“Our focus is on … common-sense measures that will make our communities safer,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday. “The majority of the American public supports background checks. The majority of the American public does not believe that anyone needs to have an assault weapon,” she said.

Vice President Kamala Harris told CBS News on Wednesday the calls are “about saying we need reasonable gun safety laws. There is no reason why we have assault weapons on the streets of the civil society, they are weapons of war.”

Democrats, who tend to be in favour of increased gun control measures, now control Congress and the White House, giving gun control measures their best chances in more than 10 years.

Also, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the nation’s premier gun lobby organisation that has worked for years to block any restrictions on gun ownership, is in a weakened state after years of inner turmoil resulted in two lawsuits, one of which is continuing in the state of New York and calls for the organisation’s dissolution, and a bankruptcy declaration in 2021.

But it remains unlikely the full scope of Biden’s recommendations could pass, though near-universal background checks for gun purchases could be on the horizon.

Steep hill

Gun control bills are easier to pass in the House of Representatives, where Democrats have a majority with 219 of the 435 seats. The chamber is also home to some Republicans who support limited gun control measures.

The House passed two bills on March 11 that were previously passed in 2019 but were not taken up in the Senate.

The first makes background checks nearly universal. There are exceptions, including transfers between close family and temporary loans to prevent “to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm”, the bill states.

The second closes the “Charleston” loophole, which allows a gun sale to go forward if a background check is not completed in three days, expanding the period to 10 days.

The loophole allowed white supremacist Dylann Roof to kill nine people in 2015 at a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Neither bill addresses assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.

The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action called the bills “a transparent attempt by gun control advocates in Congress to restrict the rights of law-abiding Americans under the guise of addressing the violent criminal culture in America. The truth, however, is that neither of these bills will do anything to solve that problem.”

But the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (GLC) says that background check laws help “prevent guns from being diverted to the illegal gun market” and enjoy great support among US citizens.

States “without universal background check laws export crime guns across state lines at a 30 percent higher rate than states that require background checks on all gun sales”, GLC claims.

Then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords sitting with her mother Gloria Giffords at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas the day before her cranioplasty on May 17, 2011 [File: Giffords Facebook via AFP]

GLC was founded by former Representative Gabby Giffords, who was shot in 2011 during an assassination attempt that became a mass shooting, with six people being killed, including a nine-year-old child.

The organisation also notes an overwhelming majority of the US supports universal background checks, with some polls in recent years showing as many as nine in 10 Americans supporting the idea.

Still, any new restrictions would face a steep uphill battle in the Senate.

Democrats control the Senate with a 50-50 split, thanks to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris, but 60 votes are still required to pass any important legislation, due to a parliamentary procedure called the filibuster which allows for dissenting senators to block a bill from coming to vote.

A filibuster can only be stopped by 60 votes, which means at least 10 Republicans are needed to pass the proposed legislation.

Democratic hurdles

Obstacles will not come only from Republicans, but also Democrats.

Centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said on Tuesday he will not support the measures passed in the House.

Manchin still supports a bipartisan bill he struck from 2013, called the Manchin-Toomey amendment, which would make most private-party gun sales subject to background checks.

The amendment was crafted after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting that killed 27, including 20 children below the age of eight. It failed to pass the Senate, even though Democrats had a majority at the time.

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who has made gun control a tentpole of his political career after Sandy Hook, said he believes there are 60 votes for universal background checks during a committee hearing on Tuesday.

Murphy told MSNBC on Wednesday the “anti-gun violence movement” is now “stronger” than the gun lobby, and he hopes to put together a bill for universal background checks in the next two weeks.

Murphy told Anderson Cooper he hoped Republicans would pass the bills, to “show Republicans that when they support things that are wildly popular, like background checks, the sky won’t fall, the gun lobby won’t defeat you in your next election”.

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, issued a statement on Tuesday saying the US needs “Congress to act and implement solutions, guided by a public health and equity approach, that the American people already wholeheartedly support … and we will continue pushing Congress to pass new legislation to fix our broken firearm laws”.

Source: Al Jazeera