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Biden seizes on gun control despite hurdles in Congress

The issue reflects Biden’s effort to rally Democrats and put Republicans on the defensive as Congress becomes less-friendly territory

President Biden embraces his daughter Ashley as he heads back to Washington after spending Thanksgiving in Nantucket, Mass. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Vexed by another string of mass shootings, President Biden has begun calling vociferously on Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons despite the extremely low odds that it will enact such a ban — a reflection of how he may seek to use Republicans as a foil now that a GOP takeover of the House is putting his legislative goals further out of reach.

The president’s declaration that it is “just sick” that the United States allows the sale of semiautomatic weapons, coming after shootings in a Walmart in Virginia and an LGBTQ club in Colorado left a combined 11 people dead, does not reflect any illusions about the realities of divided government, his aides said. But with an eye toward positioning himself and his party for 2024, Biden believes public opinion has shifted in Democrats’ favor on certain key social issues, said the aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal strategy.

“This is one of those issues where there’s a huge disconnect between the attitudes of average Americans and Republicans,” said John Anzalone, Biden’s pollster, adding that issues like universal background checks and other restrictions on accessing guns are supported by a significant majority of voters. “It will continue to be a political football, but I think that increasingly it’ll be an electoral issue.”

In July, a Quinnipiac University poll found that Americans are roughly split on an assault weapons ban, with 49 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed. In the fall, the Pew Research Center asked parents how effective a ban would be in preventing school shootings, and 61 percent said it would be at least somewhat effective while 38 percent disagreed.

Biden on Thursday spoke vehemently as he told reporters that he would push for a ban on assault weapons, including during the lame-duck session of Congress before Republicans take control of the House in January. “I’m sick and tired of these shootings. We should have much stricter gun laws,” he said, before adding that it was “sick” to allow people to buy high-powered weapons with “no social redeeming value.”

Following two mass killings, President Biden said on Nov. 24 that it was "ridiculous" red flag laws were not being enforced. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Reuters)

Some Democrats believe gun-control measures are especially popular with the younger voters who helped power the party during its unexpectedly successful midterm elections. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ loss of the House will probably force Biden to focus less on legislative wins and more on rallying Democrats and putting Republicans on the defensive as he heads toward a planned reelection run.

Despite Biden’s promise that he will start “counting the votes” for an assault weapons ban in Congress, there is little evidence that enough such votes exist, even before the Republicans take over the House in January. In the Senate, at least 10 Republicans would need to cross the aisle to send a bill to the president’s desk, since the chamber is currently divided 50-50 and the legislation would require 60 votes to pass.

After shootings, Democrats push assault weapons ban

In June, a far more modest gun-control measure passed the Senate with 15 Republicans joining the Democrats, but that came only after weeks of difficult negotiations in the aftermath of the killing of 19 students and two teachers at a Texas elementary school. Many senators believe that measure, which for example expanded some background checks, represented the outer limits of what Congress is willing to do.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Biden had brought up the issue in a private meeting with advisers in the Oval Office, in an attempt to clarify that he realizes that passing such a bill is an “uphill battle.” Still, she said, Biden planned to use the power of the presidency to make the case to the public, hoping to put pressure on Republican lawmakers who she said are out-of-step with voters.

We understand that this is not easy. He gets that,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean that he’s going to stop fighting for it or that he’s going to stop talking about it.”

After midterm elections that saw Democrats outperform historic norms even as they lost their slim majority in the House, the White House has been emboldened by the prospect that Biden’s policies remain popular with voters, even as his approval rating lags.

In the run-up to the elections, several Democratic candidates touted the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first gun-control legislation in 30 years, which Biden signed in June. The bill, which sought to expand federal funding for state “crisis intervention programs,” including red-flag laws, stopped short of the more sweeping gun-control measures the president and many Democrats have called for.

Some Democrats, including several younger candidates for office, made combating gun violence and mass shootings a key part of their campaigns. The victory of Maxwell Frost, a Florida Democrat who became the first member of Gen Z elected to Congress, highlighted how the politics of guns have shifted over the past decade. Frost, 25, has said he was motivated to get involved in political organizing after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and worked for a group that was created by survivors of a high school mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.

Biden, who spoke to Frost earlier this month, has pledged to continue to push for laws to combat such mass killings, telling younger voters that he would not stop working to ban the kind of semiautomatic rifles used in those and other shootings.

But he is likely to face stiff opposition from Republicans, who have resisted new gun laws and accused the president of targeting law-abiding citizens for exercising their Second Amendment rights. Many House Republicans believe that working with Biden on gun issues could cost them their seat in GOP primary races, Anzalone said.

And although they fell short of expectations in the midterms, House GOP leaders have not signaled a willingness to compromise with Biden on many issues, let alone one of great importance to their rank-and-file.

“Americans rejected Pelosi’s gun control schemes in the midterms, yet here is Biden saying he wants to ban modern firearms, and maligning most gun owners,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) wrote on Twitter on Sunday, referencing outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“We already have many gun laws on the books,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the incoming chair of the House Oversight Committee, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “If passing a bill would simply end gun violence, then I think you would have overwhelming support in Congress for that.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who worked with Biden on the modest gun bill that past in June, acknowledged that there probably is not enough support — and possibly not enough time — to pass an assault weapons ban in the Senate, which faces many difficult but necessary votes before year’s end. Still, Murphy said, it could be worth holding a vote on guns to force senators to put their positions on the record.

“We have got to increase the debt ceiling. We have got to keep the government open and operating,” Murphy said Sunday in an interview with CNN. “But I'm glad that President Biden is going to be pushing us to take a vote on an assault weapons ban.”

Some activists have given Biden credit for not giving up on the ban even as they encourage him to consider other, more realistic options. Mark Barden, co-founder and chief executive of the Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund, said the bill Biden already signed showed that bipartisanship on gun legislation can be achieved.

“While limits on certain semiautomatic weapons may be difficult to pass, we know bipartisan solutions are possible,” said Barden, whose son, Daniel, was one of 20 first-graders killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School. “Areas for possible bipartisanship include continuing to strengthen background checks on all gun purchases, supporting states in developing and implementing extreme risk protection orders, and helping gun owners to securely store their firearms.”

Extreme risk protection orders, often called “red-flag” laws, allow authorities to confiscate an individual’s gun if a court, acting at the request of police or family members, concludes they pose a serious threat of violence.

Jean-Pierre declined to say if the president was discussing any alternatives to the assault weapons ban or if he was considering executive actions on guns that would not require a congressional vote. Biden took a string of actions last year after mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado, including moving to restrict access to “ghost guns” that are assembled at home, and other moves designed to make it harder for unqualified people to obtain dangerous weapons.

The president also indicated that he would be working to bolster implementation of laws already on the books, including a measure to facilitate red-flag laws.

Biden said Thursday that it was “ridiculous” that red-flag laws were not being enforced to their fullest extent. Colorado’s red-flag law has come under scrutiny after authorities learned that the alleged gunman who killed five people at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs on Nov. 19 had previously made a bomb threat against a family member.

Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia, said Biden has little choice but to continue to focus on offering solutions to the intractable problem of mass shootings in America, since the issue has touched so many parts of American society.

Perry cited her own example, noting that students and professors at the “idyllic” U-Va. campus were recently shocked by the shooting of three football players.

As the list of cities and towns marred by mass shootings grows, Biden faces the challenge of making sure the public does not become numb to tragedy, she said, adding that past presidents who faced stubborn problems or congressional gridlock distinguished themselves by finding ways to connect with the American people and produce solutions.

“A leader does not allow the society to become immune to the horrors, whether it’s civil rights violations or lynchings or the Cold War,” she said. “Presidents, if they’re genuine leaders, don’t just follow public opinion or what’s happening in the House or the Senate.”