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From Sandy Hook to Buffalo and Uvalde: Ten years of failure on gun control

Biden has played a central role in the unsuccessful efforts to enact significant firearms legislation amid thousands of mass shootings, including another this week at a Texas elementary school

President Barack Obama speaks in the White House Rose Garden on April 17, 2013, with Vice President Joe Biden close by. They were joined by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, second from left, and relatives of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Gun-control legislation known as Manchin-Toomey was defeated that day. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
19 min

Gabrielle Giffords huddled with Vice President Joe Biden in his private office just off the Senate floor on an April Wednesday in 2013, watching the stunning defeat of a bill to expand background checks to most gun sales.

Giffords — a former Democratic lawmaker who still had difficulty speaking after being shot in the head in 2011 during an event in her Arizona district — was equal parts furious and devastated as she watched 46 of her former colleagues, including five Democratic senators, vote against the gun-control measure informally known as Manchin-Toomey.

The gun bill had emerged in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., just four months prior — a massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead. Now it was clear that not even 20 slaughtered first-graders would move the nation to change its gun laws.

Biden empathized with Giffords, telling her he understood how painful it was to see the defeat of the background check measure negotiated by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), said Peter Ambler, who had joined Giffords’s congressional staff just five days before she was shot and now is the executive director of Giffords, a group devoted to fighting gun violence.

Mass shootings in the U.S. are overwhelmingly committed by men. Experts are examining the place of masculinity in the gun debate. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Erin Patrick O'Connor, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

But Biden also offered an encouraging note, telling Giffords the failed vote would infuriate the American people and spur them to take action to prevent gun violence: “This is actually going to help you build a movement,” Ambler recalled Biden saying.

Biden’s optimism was misplaced. Since Sandy Hook, the nation has experienced more than 3,500 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that tracks gun violence and defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are killed or injured.

The shootings have touched nearly every imaginable slice of American life: A Black church in Charleston, S.C. (2015). A government-funded nonprofit center in San Bernardino, Calif. (2015). A gay nightclub in Orlando (2016). A country music festival in Las Vegas (2017). A high school in Parkland, Fla. (2018). A synagogue in Pittsburgh (2018). A Walmart in majority-Hispanic El Paso, followed just hours later by a shooting in a popular nightlife corridor in Dayton, Ohio (2019). Asian American massage businesses in Atlanta (2021).

Then on May 14, a racist attack at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo left 10 dead and thrust mass shootings back into the news.

And then again on Tuesday, at least 19 students and two teachers were killed in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., about 80 miles west of San Antonio. The alleged gunman, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was apparently killed by police officers at the scene.

In the nearly decade-long stretch between Sandy Hook and Buffalo and Uvalde, congressional efforts to change gun policies in any significant way have repeatedly failed, despite lawmakers occasionally commencing gun-control discussions anew in the wake of particularly harrowing gun tragedies. And Biden has played a central role in many of those unsuccessful efforts, first as vice president under Barack Obama and now as president.

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Biden frequently touts his role in passing a 1994 assault weapons ban — but that bill included a 10-year “sunset” clause, meaning the law automatically expired in 2004 after Congress did not renew it.

After Sandy Hook, Obama made Biden his point person on guns. Biden led a team that proposed nearly two dozen executive actions on guns that Obama signed, but he also oversaw the failed Manchin-Toomey effort.

Now as president, Biden has yet to receive from the Democratic-controlled Congress any major piece of legislation aimed at preventing mass shootings. Most Republicans remain opposed to any proposed changes, arguing that new restrictions would have little impact on the frequency of mass shootings and would impinge on Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms.

Returning from Buffalo in the aftermath of the latest massacre, Biden said there was “not much on executive action” that he could carry out on gun control and, referring to the 1994 assault weapons ban, said, “I’ve got to convince the Congress that we should go back to what I passed years ago.”

He also acknowledged the political head winds he was still facing, nearly a decade after Sandy Hook.

“The answer is going to be very difficult,” Biden added before boarding Air Force One to fly back to Washington. “It’s going to be very difficult. But I’m not going to give up trying.”

‘It won’t be easy’

In 2012, five days after Sandy Hook and six days before Christmas, Obama addressed reporters, promising to “use all the powers of this office” to help prevent more gun tragedies.

With Biden standing just behind his right shoulder, Obama announced he had asked his vice president to lead an effort to produce a set of concrete proposals to curb gun violence by January.

“It won’t be easy — but that can’t be an excuse not to try,” Obama said.

Biden threw himself into the effort. He and his team held roughly 200 meetings, said a former top Biden policy adviser from that period, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. Biden and his team huddled with Cabinet officials, policy experts, active duty service members, veterans, outdoors enthusiasts, gun violence prevention groups, police officers and, of course, Sandy Hook families.

“We were doing everything we could to lessen the chances of someone coming into possession of a weapon and slaughtering people,” said Shailagh Murray, Biden’s deputy chief of staff at the time. “It was probably the most substantive exercise that we undertook in the office the whole time I was there, and people from all over the government participated.”

Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a Democratic think tank, helped some of the Sandy Hook families navigate Washington bureaucracy. He said Biden and his team “were convening regular meetings to scour every nook and cranny of the federal code to figure out what they could do with their pen, and they did everything they could possibly think of — but that’s not that much.”

By mid-January, Biden produced a comprehensive road map for combating gun violence, and Obama announced 23 executive actions — including directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research the causes of gun violence; launching a nationwide responsible gun ownership campaign; providing law enforcement, first responders and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations; and launching a national discussion about mental health.

On Capitol Hill, Manchin — a proud gun owner who had grown up around firearms in West Virginia — found himself deeply moved by the shooting and was looking for a Republican partner to help draft a bipartisan gun bill.

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On Valentine’s Day 2013, Manchin and Toomey flew together to Pittsburgh for an energy conference, and the two senators from neighboring states became friendly after chatting during the flight.

A month later, after running into Toomey at Washington’s Union Station, Manchin broached the idea of teaming up on a gun deal and returned to Capitol Hill enthused. “He came into the office and said, ‘Toomey’s in,’” said Jonathan Kott, then Manchin’s communications director.

In many ways, Toomey was a natural choice. Like Manchin, he was a gun owner and had a strong rating from the National Rifle Association — but the bipartisan deal also promised potential political payoff.

“Pennsylvania was considered a little more bluish than it is now, and I think Toomey was thinking about suburban voters he wanted to seal the deal with to be a long-standing politician in Pennsylvania, so I think that’s what upside he saw in it politically,” said Brian Fallon, who at the time was the communications director for Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), now the Senate majority leader.

To many gun-control advocates, the compromise Manchin and Toomey came up with was modest to the point of being toothless. It would have expanded background checks to most gun sales, but it also loosened some existing gun restrictions — what one senior Republican staffer on Capitol Hill at the time described as “Second Amendment sweeteners” — in an effort to mollify the NRA and prevent it from actively lobbying against the bill.

But after other pro-gun groups, such as Gun Owners of America, came out against the measure, so, too, did the NRA.

“From a policy standpoint, the thing became very diluted in order to get Manchin and Toomey to support it, but the upside was that it was something, and nothing had been done on guns for so long and so getting anything done would have been a victory over the NRA,” Fallon said. “It would have been symbolic, in that it would have opened the door to do something on guns going forward.”

Several people involved in the discussions at the time said Biden was fairly removed from the Manchin-Toomey proposal snaking its way through the Capitol.

“I don’t recall him being involved at all,” Fallon said, saying that similar to the issue of immigration, the Obama-Biden administration’s approach was, “Let the lawmakers do their thing and see what they come up with.”

Part of that was by design, allies said, because the White House feared that too much Capitol Hill involvement by Obama or Biden would spook Republicans.

Still, some were frustrated with what they viewed as Biden’s inaction.

“The Biden role was a joke,” said a former Democratic Senate aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share a candid opinion. “He couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag. Biden did not move one single person. Manchin got Toomey, and Manchin is the one who really put things together.”

Manchin and Biden did speak on the phone throughout the process, with Biden sharing lessons he learned helping pass the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993 and the ban on assault weapons in 1994.

A current Biden policy adviser who also worked for him as vice president, speaking on the condition of anonymity under terms set by the White House, said, “He was definitely working the phones and calling senators until the very end.”

It soon became clear that with Manchin-Toomey, clearing the 60-vote filibuster threshold would be a heavy lift. Some Republicans, pointing to their support on other hot button cultural issues, like gay rights and immigration, worried that they couldn’t take another political hit with their base.

“There was definitely a sense at that time that for a lot of Republicans it was too much ‘culture change’ too quickly,” Ambler said. “They didn’t feel like there was room in their politics to take on any additional territory.”

In the end the measure was defeated, 54 to 46, in April 2013 with only four Republicans — Toomey included — ultimately supporting the bill.

Four Democratic senators — Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — also voted against the bill. Three were later defeated in reelection bids, and Baucus became an ambassador. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) supported the bill but voted against it for procedural reasons.

Baucus and Biden were close friends, having served together in the Senate since the late 1970s and, to some, Baucus’s no vote underscored Biden’s lack of influence on the issue. “It’s pretty astonishing that Baucus wouldn’t step up for his buddy Biden,” the former Democratic Senate aide said.

David Ramseur, who was Begich’s chief of staff, said Begich was “a product of Alaska, a lifetime member of the NRA, first to get a concealed permit in Alaska.” But Begich also had a young son at the time and, like nearly everyone in the nation, was deeply affected by the Sandy Hook shooting.

Ramseur said he vividly remembers the Sandy Hook parents coming to lobby their office. “I still have one of those rubber bracelets with his son’s name on it, and I look at it every day in my car,” he said, referring to a memento given out by one of the parents. “It was a tough vote.”

Much of the Democratic ire was reserved for Heitkamp, who had recently been elected and did not have to run again until 2018.

Giffords had been lobbying her former colleagues to vote for Manchin-Toomey, and in one meeting, she urged Heitkamp to support the legislation, according to two people with direct knowledge of the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose a private conversation. Heitkamp, through tears, conveyed she believed voting for the bill was the right thing to do, they said. But Heitkamp ultimately told Giffords she couldn’t support it, suggesting the politics were too difficult for her, the people said.

Tessa Gould, a Heitkamp spokeswoman who was her chief of staff at the time, disputed that account: “Not only did this meeting not happen but the characterization is completely inconsistent with what Heidi’s thinking and our internal discussions were at the time about the bill.”

After the vote, Obama called it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”

Kott, Manchin’s aide at the time, said he concluded that significant federal gun-control legislation was all but doomed.

“We as a country watched 20 babies get murdered and we did nothing,” he said. “And then month after month, every time a new mass shooting would happen, people would ask, “Are you going to reintroduce it?’ And the answer was: ‘Why? We have even less votes now.’”

‘We’ve got to stop this nonsense'

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) blames former president Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for thwarting one of Congress’s best chances in recent years at passing gun-control legislation.

Murphy — who, as the junior senator from Connecticut, views gun control as a passion project — said that in the decade after Sandy Hook talk of federal action to prevent gun violence has bubbled up periodically, usually after another particularly devastating mass shooting.

But in his view, the most promising opportunity came in August 2019, after back-to-back shootings in El Paso and Dayton, which combined left 32 people dead and scores injured.

In the aftermath, Murphy said, he and several other senators began negotiating with then-Attorney General William P. Barr about a deal to expand background checks to all commercial sales. He said they also had a 45-minute conversation with Trump, after which Trump instructed his staff to write background check legislation.

But then in September, news leaked that Trump had pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden — at the time his opponent in the 2020 presidential election — in exchange for military aid, and the gun discussions ground to a halt.

“What happened is the Zelensky call became public, and those negotiations never started back up once we were on a fast track towards impeachment,” Murphy said.

The Trump years presented several other moments of potential opportunity. In October 2017, a gunman above the Las Vegas Strip opened fire at a country music festival, killing more than 50 and wounding hundreds.

The shooter had used a device known as a bump stock, which makes it easier to fire a semiautomatic rifle more rapidly, and the following December, Trump’s Justice Department banned bump stocks.

The Trump administration later also tried to issue guidance that could have outlawed stabilizing braces, which help steady a shooter’s aim, but ultimately withdrew the guidance amid outcry both inside the White House and among Republicans and gun rights groups.

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In early 2018, a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland killed 17. A week after the shooting, Trump met with some of the Parkland survivors and families, clutching a note card with Sharpie-scrawled prompts such as, “What can we do to help you feel safe?” and “I hear you.”

The following week, in a meeting with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, Trump bucked the NRA, calling for “comprehensive” gun legislation. He warned fellow Republicans that they can’t be “petrified” of the powerful gun group and at one point suggested, “Take the guns first, go through due process second.”

“It’s time,” Trump told the group. “We’ve got to stop this nonsense.”

But the next day, Trump hosted the NRA’s top lobbyist in the Oval Office — a meeting both men later described on Twitter as “great” — and all post-Parkland momentum at the administration level seemed to end.

Kris Brown, the president of Brady, a gun violence prevention organization, remembers talking with Democratic senators at the time, thinking that perhaps Trump and his team would help with federal legislation.

The group, Brown said, thought that “maybe this is an opportunity for us — and then it lasted all of 24 hours.”

‘The before and after moment’

After the Buffalo shooting, Manchin again called on Congress to take up his bipartisan background checks deal from nearly a decade ago.

“If you can’t pass Manchin-Toomey, how are you going to get enough votes for anything else?” Manchin told reporters.

But even that seems unlikely.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Toomey said that neither Biden nor his staff has contacted the senator about working on gun legislation. Toomey, however, added that he was “not shocked,” saying he has tried to engage the White House on other issues and has been unable to get Biden to take his calls.

He also said he is skeptical that the Buffalo tragedy will prompt a meaningful federal gun bill.

“I never say never, but I don’t think there’s anything President Biden can do or say,” Toomey said. “The political dynamic is such that a popular Republican president would have more of chance. … A Democratic president isn’t in a position, especially an unpopular one like Biden.”

Still, allies and advisers say Biden views gun control as a critical issue.

He entered the White House with an aggressive plan to tackle gun violence, administration officials said, and since taking office, he has announced four packages of executive actions on the topic. These include cracking down on “ghost guns,” promoting the safe storage of firearms, and federal funding to bolster police forces and expand community violence intervention programs.

In June 2021, Biden issued a gun crime reduction agenda, which in part called on cities and states to use funding from the American Rescue Plan for public safety, and White House officials say $10 billion from that legislation has already been used for crime prevention.

Biden has also tried to corral the Senate into confirming a director to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — a position that has been without a Senate-confirmed leader since 2015. His first nominee, David Chipman, withdrew after bipartisan opposition, but the White House has made an aggressive push behind the president’s second nominee, Steve Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney.

“While there’s a lot of frustration with this administration, and I think it’s very fair, this is the greatest champion we’ve had on addressing gun violence in history in my opinion because he’s taken a more holistic, comprehensive approach,” said Greg Jackson, the executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, which works to end gun violence in communities of color. “It’s not just reactive to one moment to one shooting or to one media story. It’s really looking at this as a whole.”

For Murphy, nine years after Sandy Hook, the tale of the nation’s quest to end gun violence remains a hopeful one. The anti-gun movement began in earnest in 2013, he says, arguing that “there are not a lot of moments where everybody goes from Position A to Position Z. You need to build political power in order to enact important, controversial social change.”

“I think that we have made enormous progress over the last nine years, and I sort of look at Sandy Hook as the before and after moment,” Murphy said.

Yet the before and after can look hauntingly similar. The Buffalo shooter, for instance, used the same weapon as the Sandy Hook shooter — a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic rifle. The suspect allegedly wrote in an online document that he modified it to hold more ammunition.