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Biden turns to stemming gun crimes as violence rises

The president Monday took action against ‘ghost guns’ and named former U.S. attorney Steve Dettelbach to head ATF

Steve Dettelbach — Biden's choice to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — at a breakfast with faith and community leaders in Cincinnati. (Maddie McGarvey for The Washington Post)

President Biden on Monday used a Rose Garden ceremony to announce a crackdown on guns that can be made from kits and to introduce his new pick to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, two initiatives intended to show he wants to stem crime as gun violence continues to surge.

The twin moves, which come as Republicans have been attacking Democrats on crime, were long anticipated and were cheered Monday by gun control advocates. But they are far short of what many of them have hoped for with the Biden administration and Congress controlled by Democrats.

“This should be just a start,” Biden said Monday, acknowledging that the advocates’ agenda on guns remains mostly unrealized.

The president said he is still pushing for a law requiring universal background checks for gun purchases, a ban on assault weapons and repeal of a liability shield that protects gun manufacturers from many lawsuits.

Still, the advocates gathered at the White House on Monday applauded as Biden announced a regulatory change requiring that commercial dealers of gun kits must be licensed federally and must run background checks before sales.

The idea is to treat these home-assembled guns more like traditional firearms. The weapons, which can be put together in as little as 30 minutes and are sometimes called “ghost guns,” do not require serial numbers, making it harder to vet their purchasers and track the firearms during investigations.

Activists push to ban "ghost guns" in Maryland

Biden on Monday ridiculed the notion that guns that can be quickly put together should be treated differently from other weapons.

“You know, if you buy a couch you have to assemble, it’s still a couch,” Biden said. But, he added, gesturing to a table next to him that displayed two of the gun kits, “if you order a package like this one over here, it includes the parts you need” to assemble a working firearm.

Then Biden walked over to the table. “Take a look,” he said, lifting one of the guns, holding it in the air and adding, “It’s not hard to put together.”

It was not the first time Biden has outlined a strategy for tackling rising crime. Last June, the president unveiled a plan to crack down on gun stores that don’t follow the rules, bolster programs for recently released convicts and give more support to police departments.

But Biden has struggled to balance liberals’ demand for police revision with voters’ desire for strong law enforcement. In embracing gun control, the White House hoped to highlight a crime-fighting strategy that appeals to liberals as well as some police chiefs.

Introducing Biden on Monday was Mia Tretta, who was shot in the stomach during a 2019 school shooting that left three dead, including the shooter, a fellow student wielding a ghost gun who turned the weapon on himself.

“A community was left shattered,” Tretta said, after describing the chilling moment when she and her best friend heard the “pop” of gunfire. The friend, Dominick Blackwell, died in the attack. “It’s hard for me to talk about Dominick,” she said. “Like me, Dominick had big dreams.”

Tretta said in an interview that she had only a few days to prepare her speech. She spoke with Biden and Vice President Harris in the Oval Office before addressing the crowd, and appeared to build a rapport with the president. Biden whispered to her several times while the two stood on a dais waiting for others to speak.

“We’re passionate about similar things,” she said of the president. But “there’s still more work to be done.”

Republican groups criticized Biden’s move.

“Biden attacking so-called ‘ghost guns’ will only make our communities worse off,” said Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action, a conservative group. The new rule allows the federal government to expand the definition of a firearm, she said, and therefore “subject many law-abiding firearm owners to more burdensome regulations and duplicative background checks.”

The president also announced the nomination of Steve Dettelbach to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

That came seven months after David Chipman, Biden’s initial pick to run the agency, withdrew amid bipartisan opposition in the Senate over his past gun-control advocacy. Chipman had worked at ATF for more than two decades before joining a gun-control group led by former representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Angus King (I-Maine) were among those saying they would not support Chipman’s nomination, enough to doom it in a Senate divided evenly between the parties.

A senior administration official told reporters that the White House hoped Dettelbach — former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio and a candidate for state attorney general in 2018 — would be a “noncontroversial appointment.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted Monday that Dettelbach has already been confirmed by the Senate, when he was named U.S. attorney. Still, only one ATF chief has been confirmed since the position was made subject to Senate approval in 2006, a reflection of the polarized nature of gun politics.

And several lawmakers already sounded lukewarm Monday.

“We’re initiating a review of his professional path,” said Matthew Felling, a spokesman for King. Aides to Manchin did not respond to emails seeking comment on the nominee.

Monday’s actions are in part an acknowledgment of the role that voters’ concerns about rising crime could play in November’s midterm elections. Republicans have sought to brand Democrats as the party of the “defund the police” movement and have asserted that the party’s weak approach to law enforcement is contributing to the rise in violence.

In recent weeks, Biden and the Democrats have ramped up their efforts to counter that narrative. During his State of the Union address, Biden said pointedly, “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.”

At the same time, liberal activists complain that Democrats have not acted on the police brutality and systemic racism that prompted thousands to pour into the streets for emotional protests in 2020. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, for example, never made it out of the Senate, and a bipartisan effort to forge a police restructuring bill likewise fizzled.

Biden has said his crime-reduction efforts — taking guns off streets, funding community-based crime mitigation efforts and giving municipalities money for officer training — have wide support and a good chance of success.