Gun safety groups push Biden to act, but White House looks to Congress

Gun safety groups push Biden to act, but White House looks to Congress

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(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Some of the 1,100 body bags that will spell out the words “Thoughts and Prayers” are placed on the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol as gun control activists demand Congress do more to end gun violence in Washington, U.S., March 24, 2022
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By Jeff Mason and Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Gun safety advocates are pushing U.S. President Joe Biden to take stronger measures on his own to curb gun violence after the Texas elementary school shooting, but the White House wants Congress to act first to have a more significant impact.

The White House has spoken with gun safety groups since Tuesday’s rampage in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 elementary school students and two teachers were killed – the deadliest school shooting in nearly a decade – activists said.

The groups are urging Biden to make an emergency declaration on gun violence, name a gun violence czar, advocate lifting the Senate filibuster if necessary and issue an executive order on background checks for firearms purchases if lawmakers do not pass legislation tightening loopholes in current law.

For the moment, the Biden administration is pressing Congress to pass tighter gun laws that can have more lasting impact than executive action. The White House has been in touch with top Democrats in Congress regarding next steps on firearms laws.

Democrat-backed bills requiring background checks, banning semi-automatic rifles, and strengthening gun safety measures have failed for a decade in Congress in the face of stalwart Republican opposition and objections from some moderate Democrats and independents. Gun rights advocates believe in a broad interpretation of U.S. constitutional protections for keeping and bearing arms.

Democrats in Congress said Wednesday they would try again on legislation.

“The plan is to work hard at a compromise for the next 10 days,” said Senator Chris Murphy. “Hopefully, we succeed and the Senate can vote on a bipartisan bill that saves lives.”

After the gunman, identified as Salvador Ramos, 18, used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to kill students and teachers before being killed, many gun safety activists demanded more urgency from the White House.

“President Biden is not doing enough,” David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland, Florida, high school massacre, said on Wednesday. “I’ve talked many times to the White House … and repeatedly we hear again and again: ‘Well … there’s X thing that comes up, there’s Y thing that comes up.'”

The White House is “continuing to look at every tool we have to stop gun violence, with new urgency following the tragic shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, including through additional executive actions,” White House spokesman Michael Gwin said in response to questions about next steps. The president, he said, “has, and will continue, to forcefully press Congress to act.”

PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY

Since taking office in January 2021, the Biden administration has taken several steps without Congress. They include requiring that “ghost guns,” which are often assembled from kits, be regulated the same way as traditional firearms, and launching a strike force aimed at cracking down on illegal firearms trafficking in major cities, including New York and Los Angeles.

Gun safety advocates say there is more the president can do alone.

“He should declare gun violence a public health emergency,” said Kris Brown, president of Brady, a gun violence protection group. “We need to tackle this in a way that prevents the violence from happening in the first place and not walk away from it because it’s a public health emergency that happens to involve guns.”

A national emergency declaration gives the president additional statutory powers to address a crisis. The White House says Biden has already called it an emergency and a legal invocation would not lead to the authorities needed to address gun violence.

Brown said if the Senate did not pass gun safety measures under consideration, Democrats should lift the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes in the 100-member body to approve legislation. Biden, a former U.S. senator, has been largely reluctant to advocate such a change to pass his policy agenda.

Po Murray, who chairs the grassroots group Newtown Action Alliance, said the White House needs an office of gun violence prevention. “We appreciate that (domestic policy council director) Susan Rice is tasked with addressing this issue, but we believe we need somebody that could spend 100% of his or her time doing this work,” Murray said.

“Since we elected a gun safety president, he could certainly do more,” she said.

Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, a gun violence protection group founded by former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, said the White House should write an executive order on background checks if a bill does not pass.

It could be used to mandate that anyone who sells as few as two guns per year would need to become a federal firearms licensee and conduct background checks, he said.

More broadly, he said, the Biden administration needed to beef up its ability to tackle gun violence via the Justice Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

“The administration needs to make gun violence protection a governing – not just a political – priority,” Ambler said.