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Opinion Biden’s small steps on guns are both welcome and dispiriting

President Biden hugs Mia Tretta, a Saugus High School shooting survivor, during an event on measures to combat gun crime at the White House in Washington on April 11. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday afternoon, President Biden announced the finalization of a regulation aimed at cracking down on “ghost guns,” which are difficult or impossible to trace when they’re used in violent crimes, and also named a new nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The characterization of, and the reaction to these two announcements sums up much of what’s maddening about the politics of guns in the United States.

The administration describes what it’s doing as aggressive, determined, and above all, meaningful. Gun safety advocates would be more restrained. And gun advocates? They react the way they always do, by treating every government action, no matter how small or how widely supported by the public, as a cataclysmic threat to gun rights.

Consider Steve Dettelbach, Biden’s new choice to head ATF. The last time the Senate confirmed a director for the agency was nearly a decade ago. Why? Because Republicans would prefer the agency to be weak and disorganized, less able to enforce the nation’s gun laws. Having it be led by acting directors serves that goal.

President Biden’s first nominee to head the agency, longtime ATF agent David Chipman, was withdrawn in the face of passionate opposition from gun groups and Republicans because he had been adviser to the gun safety group Giffords. While the final straw came when a few conservative Senate Democrats backed away from him, the whole problem was that the person chosen to crack down on illegal gun trafficking was not sufficiently pro-gun.

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But now the White House thinks it has solved the problem with Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor from Ohio. A senior administration official told reporters that they hoped Dettelbach would be a “noncontroversial appointment.”

Yet the same day, I got a news release from a gun rights organization calling Dettelbach a “radical anti-gunner” because he has supported things like universal background checks, for which polls have found support topping 90 percent. And if Dettelbach is confirmed, it will be over the objection of nearly every GOP senator. They know that if any Republican gives an inch on guns — by supporting the confirmation of an ATF director, or supporting even the most depressingly modest gun regulations — that person will likely be branded a political traitor who must be purged.

On the other side, gun safety advocates don’t have a lot to cheer about. The administration’s rule on ghost guns, for instance, is meant to apply many of the same serial number and background check requirements to gun-making kits that ordinary guns get, allowing them to be traced if they’re used in a crime. That’s undoubtedly a good thing. But in their statement, the Justice Department notes that ghost guns were involved in just 692 “homicide or attempted homicide investigations” in a six-year period running from 2016-2021. Given that the number of gun homicides over that same period approaches 100,000 (though 2021 data are not complete yet), it’s clear that ghost guns are just one tiny corner of the United States’s gun problem

That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth addressing, and they could certainly become a bigger problem in the future. But it shows how limited the administration’s tools are in the absence of legislation — which, of course, will be stymied by Republicans and a few pro-gun Democrats, unless the political incentives change.

Sadly, that seems unlikely anytime soon. Republicans somehow have convinced many Americans that the recent spike in homicides can be blamed on a small number of progressive prosecutors elected in the last few years. In fact, homicide increases happened across the country, in places where both Democrats and Republicans are in charge, and under the watch of both new and old prosecutors.

A recent report from the centrist Democratic group Third Way noted that homicides rose most in 2020 in red states, and many cities run by Republicans as well: “The homicide rate in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco was half that of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s Bakersfield, a city with a Republican mayor that overwhelmingly voted for Trump.”

So might the increase in homicides have something to do with the fact that gun sales exploded in 2020 along with the pandemic, increasing by 40 percent from the previous year, and were nearly as high in 2021? Had sales stayed at 2019 levels there would be 22 million fewer guns in people’s hands than there are today.

That isn’t the only suspect — the pandemic has had a broad spectrum of negative effects that could have led to more killings — but it’s amazing how little of our recent discussion of crime and homicide has to do with the primary means Americans use to kill each other.

Instead, across the country, Republicans are using the increase in crime as a justification to promote laws allowing almost anyone to carry a gun almost anywhere, with no requirements for training or permitting.

So we can give the administration credit for what it’s trying to do; governing involves lots of small steps meant to address big challenges. But it’s still dispiriting how limited the president’s actions are, given the magnitude of the problem.