President Biden held up the gun like it was an unexploded grenade. Like it was something misbegotten from a more uncivilized time. He showed it to the cameras like it was simply a hunk of dangerous metal wholly unattached to virility, patriotism or bravery. He held the gun in a way that politicians rarely do: with a modicum of disgust.
On Monday, Biden invited gun control advocates to the White House for a Rose Garden ceremony during which he announced he was taking executive action to regulate the sale of ghost guns.
Ghost guns are typically purchased as kits and assembled at home. They also lack serial numbers. All of that makes it difficult to track ownership. Biden’s order mandates background checks on people who buy these gun parts and requires adding serial numbers to the assembled weapons. Biden offered this analogy as an explanation for the new rules: “If you buy a couch you have to assemble, it’s still a couch.”
The president followed a trio of speakers — Vice President Harris, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and activist Mia Tretta — who each reiterated the definition of such guns, which might well be called do-it-yourself weapons. They underscored the devastation that comes from their use. Tretta, in particular, spoke vividly about being wounded by a ghost gun and about the death of her best friend from one that was used in a school shooting.
As he began his remarks, Biden emphasized that ghost guns do not look like toys and that they’re as lethal as any other weapon. He clarified to his audience that assembling one didn’t require a degree in mechanical engineering, only the most basic tools and the ability to put round pegs into round holes.
Then Biden interrupted his speech and moved away from the microphone and over to a nearby table. He kept talking and his sharp words, “Take a look. Take a look at this,” hung in the air. The ghost gun’s red case was propped open on the table and the weapon was displayed in front of it in a nature morte. Biden picked up the gun gingerly and positioned it sideways. He didn’t wrap his hands around the grip of the gun. He held it away from his body. He held it like a foreign object.
He let his audience of lawmakers, gun control advocates and folks who had suffered through gun violence — along with anyone watching remotely — get a good look at precisely the sort of weapon about which he was speaking. And his body language made plain how he felt about it.
It’s not often that one sees the president standing in the Rose Garden holding a gun. Typically, if the president is clutching anything in his hand, it’s a collection of pens to be used for signing some piece of legislation into law. Or perhaps he is stroking the feathers of a lucky turkey that is about to be pardoned during the annual Thanksgiving Day festivities. The president is the commander in chief, but he is generally not wielding armory among the White House flora.
This moment stood apart from the usual narrative in both setting and message.
Presidents and lawmakers are regularly photographed bearing arms. George W. Bush and Barack Obama were both photographed with long guns, the former going hunting and the latter skeet shooting. The guns were symbols of outdoorsmanship, both rugged and effete.
Some lawmakers shoulder rifles and holster Glocks as a statement of Second Amendment fealty. They’ve made it their mission to ensure that most any citizen can own most any weapon of their choosing no matter how closely those weapons resemble deadly armament. So when they hold guns, they do so almost lovingly or fetishistically, as if the rifle or the handgun is a beloved friend or a talisman of strength and authority. The gun is their Constitution so they hold it close.
Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) used a pile of guns as a Zoom backdrop. She treated the weaponry with as much respect and caution as one might reserve for a pile of bricks. She also starred in a video that had her slapping a magazine into her Glock, shoving the gun into a holster on her hip and then boasting about how she planned to carry this concealed weapon around the nation’s capital. The gun was a bragging point. It was pure swagger and bravery melted down into a few ounces of metal.
Her colleague, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), has posed for campaign-issued photographs in which he’s draped in such massive amounts of hardware that one wonders what sort of Washington-based wildebeest he’s trying to reassure his constituents that he can take down.
The culture has become accustomed to seeing politicians who hold a gun in one hand while waving a flag in the other. There were flags in the Rose Garden, of course. But they were at a distance, not center stage. Possessing guns isn’t an act of patriotism. And regulating them isn’t an assault on it.
The day after Biden’s gun control announcement, at least 29 people were injured in a shooting on a New York subway. The White House announced that the president was being updated on developments at the scene and was in touch with the city’s mayor. The vice president was getting updates, too. New Yorkers were carrying on with their day. In Chicago, a few hours after the Rose Garden ceremony, a 17-year-old girl was critically injured after being shot and crashing her car. The weekend before, a teenager in West Philadelphia was shot multiple times and died. And so on. And so on.
In addition to his executive order, Biden again encouraged Congress to legislate universal background checks. To do more. He made plain his belief that such regulations aren’t extreme; they’re just “basic common sense” — as the politicians like to say. As they say repeatedly. Anything less is ample reason for disgust.