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Biden, decrying gun violence near massacre site, signs executive order

President vows action in Monterey Park, Calif., where 11 died at a Lunar New Year celebration in January

President Biden speaks on efforts to reduce gun violence at the Boys and Girls Club of West San Gabriel Valley on Tuesday in Monterey Park, Calif. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — President Biden on Tuesday visited this community, which is still in mourning from the mass killing of 11 people earlier this year, to announce an executive order increasing the number of background checks for gun sales, though he acknowledged the action falls short of what action by Congress could achieve.

Inside the Monterey Park shooting: dancing, then gunshots

In this largely Asian suburb of Los Angeles, where a day of jubilation to celebrate the Lunar New Year in January turned to anguish and terror as a shooter opened fire inside a dance studio, Biden attempted to draw renewed attention to the pain inflicted on communities that experience spasms of violence.

“Enough. Do something,” Biden told a crowd of about 200 at the West San Gabriel Valley Boys and Girls Club. “I’m here with you today to act.”

In addition to the background checks, Biden’s executive order directs his Cabinet to develop a proposal on how the federal government can better assist communities after a mass killing, aiming to mobilize resources for human-caused disasters in the way that Washington already does for natural disasters.

Biden is also urging the Federal Trade Commission to issue a public report that would analyze how gun manufacturers market firearms to minors.

Together, the actions amount to the president’s latest attempt to use his executive authority to crack down on gun violence, efforts that necessarily are narrower in scope than measures urged by gun-control activists that would require congressional approval. While Biden’s aides acknowledge the constraints imposed by the U.S. Constitution and the current congressional reality, he is hoping to reignite a debate around mass killings and the country’s struggles to come up with a response.

Biden’s appearance also marked the latest turn in what increasingly looks like an all-but-certain reelection bid. The visit to Monterey Park came during a three-day West Coast swing that is featuring a signature foreign policy accomplishment, fundraisers at glitzy locations and an appearance in Las Vegas on Wednesday to discuss prescription drug prices.

On Monday night, Biden spoke at a home estimated to be worth more than $8 million in Rancho Santa Fe, north of San Diego, raising some $1 million from about 40 attendees. On Tuesday night, he was scheduled to host another fundraiser in Las Vegas.

And while his efforts on gun control are not likely to introduce the sweeping change that many Democrats want on the issue, Biden is sure to continue using it as an electoral rallying cry.

He has continued to call for an assault weapons ban, background checks on all gun sales and the repeal of gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability. But those kinds of bills are unlikely to pass Congress, particularly with Republicans in control of the House and Democrats holding a narrow Senate majority.

“Let’s be clear: none of this absolves Congress from the responsibility of acting,” Biden said. “I am determined, once again, to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”

Tuesday’s executive order instructs Attorney General Merrick Garland to increase compliance among firearms sellers who are flouting the law, either intentionally or inadvertently, by not running background checks ahead of firearm purchases.

Residents in Monterey Park, Calif., shared their experiences of hearing about the shooting that killed 10 people at a ballroom dance hall on Jan 21. (Video: Joyce Koh, Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman/The Washington Post, Photo: Philip Cheung/The Washington Post)

“The president is directing the attorney general to move the U.S. as close to universal background checks as possible without additional legislation,” according to a White House summary. The move aims to further clarify a provision of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Biden signed last year.

That law, enacted in June following a mass killing at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., was the first gun-control measure that Congress had passed in 30 years. While it expanded background checks and provided mental health funding, it was crafted to be relatively modest to pass a divided Congress.

Garland is also being directed to develop a plan that would prevent firearms dealers whose licenses have been revoked or surrendered from continuing to sell guns.

Biden is also instructing his Cabinet to raise public awareness of “red flag” laws, which allow Americans to petition a court to determine whether someone is dangerous and should have their access to firearms temporarily removed. The president also wants more attention on the safe storage of guns, so that children or other inappropriate individuals can’t access firearms.

“Every few days in the United States, we mourn a new mass shooting,” Biden wrote in the order. “Daily acts of gun violence — including community violence, domestic violence, suicide, and accidental shootings — may not always make the evening news, but they too cut lives short and leave survivors and their communities with long-lasting physical and mental wounds.”

Still, the efforts announced Tuesday could be undone by a future administration that is less favorable to gun control.

The White House argued that Biden is doing the best he can under the circumstances. “When you do gun violence policy, you always have to have hope,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement. “And I think there always is hope.”

The official said Biden strongly believes Congress should act, “but in the meantime, he wants the federal government to be doing all we can with existing authority to reduce gun violence.”

The event here on Tuesday reflected the somber aftermath of January’s tragedy, with Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) thanking the president for coming to “our city, which has a deep hold in its heart, a hole that has yet to heal.”

“It feels as though the attack on Monterey Park was an attack on Asian America,” she said.

A haven for Asian immigrants faces a gun tragedy

Chu decried the killer’s ability to obtain the weapon he used. “He should never have had a weapon that was made for war. Nor should the shooters in Half Moon Bay, Buffalo, Uvalde — and countless other places,” she said. “This carnage must end.”

The event also occasionally had the feel of a political rally, with frequent and loud applause in response to any mention of the need for more gun control.

Biden’s action, despite its limited nature, quickly won praise from several gun-control groups.

“Thank you, President Biden,” said Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman and gun-violence survivor who founded an advocacy group to curb gun violence. “More must be done, but there’s no telling how many lives will be saved thanks to the meaningful actions announced today.”

Kris Brown, president of the gun-control nonprofit group Brady, said the executive order was an important step.

“While ultimately we can only achieve universal background checks through legislation, Biden’s actions today have the potential to get us closer to that reality,” Brown said.

Biden opened his remarks with a reflection on loss, citing the tragedy he has seen in his own life as a way to connect with those here who lost loved ones without warning. Biden’s first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash shortly after he was elected to the Senate in 1972, and his son Beau died of cancer in 2015.

“The suddenness tends to magnify the grief,” Biden said. “An empty chair at the dinner table — birthdays, anniversaries, holidays without them. Everyday things, small things, that detail you miss the most. The scent when you open that closet door. … The morning tea you shared together. The bend of his smile, or the perfect pitch of her laugh.”

Biden eulogized each of the 11 people who was gunned down in January, recalling the 72-year-old “Mr. Nice” who shielded his dance partner, the 62-year-old “Sister Sunshine” who loved to play cards and piano, and the 64-year-old “lifelong learner” who had a second career as a pharmacist.

“Our diversity is the strength of this nation,” the president said. As he closed out his remarks before meeting privately with family members, he looked out at the audience and said, “God bless you all. I admire you so damn much.”