President Biden, in a rare prime-time address Thursday, called on Congress to take immediate action on gun control, seeking to transform emotion and anger into change as the nation reeled from a spate of horrific mass shootings from New York to Texas to Oklahoma.
“After Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Charleston, after Orlando, after Las Vegas, after Parkland, nothing has been done,” Biden said, reeling off a litany of mass killings. “This time, that can’t be true. This time we must actually do something.”
Biden delivered the speech at a delicate moment, as a small bipartisan group of senators worked on a package of potential gun restrictions that they hoped would pass muster with conservatives. Even modest steps would mark a notable shift from recent years.
The president, however, called for a set of sweeping changes to the country’s gun laws, including banning assault weapons and limiting high-capacity magazines. The political dynamics in the evenly divided Senate make the odds on those proposals remote, as many Republican senators and their constituents are deeply wedded to gun rights as a part of conservative and rural culture.
Biden said that if was politically impossible to ban assault weapons, Congress should at least raise the age when they can be legally purchased from 18 to 21. And he sought to nod to the sentiments of gun rights supporters. “I respect the culture and the tradition and the concerns of lawful gun owners,” he said. “At the same time, the Second Amendment, like all other rights, is not absolute.”
But he added: “My God, the fact that the majority of the Senate Republicans don’t want any of these proposals even to be debated or come up for a vote, I find unconscionable.”
Biden has made sparing use of a president’s ability to command attention with a prime-time address to the nation. But the past few weeks have been bloody even by the standards of recent years, creating a sense among many from across the political spectrum that the country faces a far-reaching crisis, even if Americans differ on its nature and causes.
On May 14 in Buffalo, a White gunman opened fire at a Black-run supermarket and killed 10 people, police said. Last week in Uvalde, Tex., an 18-year-old killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school. On Wednesday in Tulsa, a man killed four people at a hospital after blaming a doctor at the facility for ongoing pain after back surgery. The president and first lady Jill Biden made trips to Buffalo and Uvalde after the shootings to meet with victims’ families and law enforcement officials, witnessing the families’ pain and anguish, and relaying the survivors’ message to “do something.”
This year, there have already been more than 200 mass shootings, defined as attacks in which four or more people — not including the shooter — are wounded or killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Biden has worked on gun control issues throughout his political career, championing the passage of an assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, as a senator and as President Barack Obama’s point person on the issue after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. Since the shooting in Buffalo, he has urged Congress to take action, but so far he has stayed out of the direct negotiations on Capitol Hill.
On Thursday, Biden prodded congressional negotiators and appealed to midterm voters, as he urged boosting background checks for gun buyers, removing legal immunity from gunmakers and requiring safe storage of firearms, among other things.
“I’ve been in this fight for a long time,” the president said. “I know how hard it is, but I’ll never give up, and if Congress fails, I believe this time a majority of the American people won’t give up either. I believe the majority of you will act to turn your outrage into making this issue central to your vote. Enough.”
Some involved in the delicate talks worried that Biden’s speech could upset the negotiations, but others welcomed an emphatic speech by the president.
“From what I hear, he feels a moral imperative and emotional commitment and a sense of obligation to help lead,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of the gun legislation negotiators, said of Biden and his decision to deliver the address. “When people ask me, ‘How is this time different,’ the deep outrage and grief that is so pervasive and persuasive add to the urgency of this moment and it is really ‘put up or shut up’ time for my Republican colleagues.”
After the speech, one senior Republican aide said Biden’s speech probably was unhelpful for the bipartisan negotiations.
“It may be helpful for Democrats, I really don’t know,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. “But for Republicans, it’s just unserious and hurts. Literally no one is talking about an assault weapons ban, not even Democrats. He needs to get out of the way and be quiet.”
Both Democrats and Republican senators involved — including longtime veterans of the gun debate such as Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.), and perennial Senate negotiators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) — have signaled substantive progress in recent days. They have also said the window for a deal is limited.
Ahead of Biden’s address, two other senior Republican officials closely involved with the Senate talks said they saw the speech as a sign that the White House believes a deal could be in hand and wants to position the president to take credit should negotiators succeed.
The officials, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, warned that publicly injecting unscripted demands into the discussion could hurt the talks. Whenever the president makes off-the-cuff remarks, such as suggesting earlier this week that a 9mm gun was a “high-caliber weapon” that should be banned, “he sets us back,” one of the senior Republican officials said.
White House officials note that Biden has taken unilateral executive actions to limit firearms — such as regulating “ghost guns” that are assembled at home and have no serial numbers — but say it is up to Congress to enact broader, more permanent measures. “The president cannot do this alone,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said earlier Thursday.
Biden’s speech was a late addition to his schedule, with the White House only announcing it Thursday afternoon and delaying the president’s planned departure to Rehoboth Beach, Del., where he will stay until Monday at his beach house.
Jean-Pierre said Biden has wanted to give a prime-time address on gun issues for some time but has not done so because “he wanted to make sure there was space for negotiations, giving space in Congress to the folks who are leading that conversation.” Now, however, “he just felt tonight was the right time to do that.”
Although a creature of the Senate and the labyrinthine legislative process, Biden has at times made comments that at least temporarily upended delicate negotiations on Capitol Hill, according to lawmakers of both parties. In recent months, the White House has taken care to not put the president front and center when it comes to such negotiations.
There have been no signs of serious trouble so far in the Senate gun talks, with aides seeing Murphy and Cornyn — two senators who are respected within their parties — as potential linchpins to a deal. Republicans have signaled they may be open to modest measures, and Democrats have suggested they are willing to accept such smaller steps.
Although any final gun legislation would be determined by what the senators can agree on, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a letter to Democratic lawmakers Thursday that her chamber would vote next week on a broad array of gun-restriction measures that have little chance of passing the Senate.
Those provisions include raising the age when it is legal to purchase a semiautomatic weapon from 18 to 21 years old, making high-capacity ammunition magazines illegal and subjecting buyers of ghost guns to background checks. The Senate package is likely to include more modest elements, such as incentives for states to pass “red flag” laws, which allow police to petition courts for the authority to seize the guns of those who have shown they are dangerous.
Jean-Pierre said Thursday that Biden has directed his staff to assess what further executive action he might be able to take to curb gun violence.
“Reducing gun violence has been a top priority of this president since his first day of office and throughout his career, as a senator, as a vice president and clearly as a president,” she said. “He has been crystal clear that Congress needs to act. The president has done more through executive action, as you’ve heard us say, than any other president in their first year in history.”
The House Judiciary Committee also held a meeting Thursday as Democrats approved a wide-ranging package of gun-control legislation that party leaders hope to bring up for a vote as soon as next week. But the committee debate devolved into a familiar spectacle, with Democrats pleading for bold federal action while Republicans countered with objections centered on the accusation that the bills would infringe on the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners.
“My friends, what the hell are you waiting for?” asked Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). “I agree this bill will not alone save every life we will lose to gun violence this year, but it will save some. … The American people are begging for us to address this crisis. Let us not wait one second longer.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the panel, called the bill “shortsighted” and “just another Democrat attack on the Second Amendment.”
“They want to change the country in so many dramatic ways,” he said. “The worst of it is this bill would not address the tragedies we have seen unfold around the country in the last couple of weeks.”
Moments later, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) delivered a sharp rebuttal: “If trying to make sure that no more kids are put in the ground with a Superman coffin means ‘dramatically change the country’ — guilty. … Why aren’t you trying to dramatically change the number of dead kids going into the ground, Mr. Jordan? Who are you here for, the kids or the killers?”