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Biden to take a flurry of actions on gun control

David Chipman, a senior policy adviser with the Giffords group, speaks at a 2019 House hearing on assault weapons. The longtime special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is being tapped to lead the agency.
David Chipman, a senior policy adviser with the Giffords group, speaks at a 2019 House hearing on assault weapons. The longtime special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is being tapped to lead the agency. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

President Biden on Thursday will announce a half-dozen executive actions focused on curbing gun violence, including regulations on home-assembled firearms and the nomination of a gun-control advocate to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The initiatives are the first major actions that Biden will take as president on guns, a top Democratic priority that has only become more urgent after recent mass shootings in Boulder, Colo., and the Atlanta area.

Shootings spur Biden to call for tighter gun rules

“We know that Americans are dying from gun violence every single day in this country,” a senior administration official, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday. “That’s why we are pursuing an agenda that will address not only mass shootings, but also community violence disproportionately affecting Black and Brown Americans, domestic violence and suicide by firearm.”

The attack on a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo., is the latest in a state that has been disproportionately plagued by the gun violence epidemic. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post, Photo: Rachel Woolf for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

The White House has suggested that executive actions by Biden would not preclude legislation on Capitol Hill, where a pair of bills expanding background checks passed the House last month, with support from nearly all Democrats and a handful of Republicans. The senior administration official emphasized that Biden could issue more executive actions on gun violence in the future.

Biden plans to announce his new directives at a White House event accompanied by Attorney General Merrick Garland, as well as advocates for stricter gun laws and lawmakers who have worked on the issue.

Devices without serial numbers that are sold in kits and assembled at home — commonly known as ghost guns — will be a major focus of Thursday’s executive actions. Biden plans to direct the Justice Department to issue a tentative rule meant to “help stop the proliferation” of the devices, the official said, without providing specifics.

President Biden on April 8 outlined his administration’s plan to curb gun violence after two recent mass shootings. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The president will also tap ­David Chipman — a veteran ATF special agent who for five years has served as senior policy adviser at Giffords — as his nominee to lead the bureau, a key agency in the fight against gun violence that has gone without a permanent director for years.

Before his current role at Giffords — an advocacy group led by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.),  who was injured in a 2011 mass shooting — Chipman was a special agent at ATF for more than two decades. He worked on gun-trafficking operations and investigations into the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Over his 25-year career at ATF, Chipman rose from an investigator focused on bombings and arson to a supervisory role. He was a member of ATF’s version of a SWAT team and was in charge of the agency’s firearms programs. After leaving ATF, Chipman worked at Everytown for Gun Safety and ShotSpotter, a private company focused on improving policing strategies.

Giffords was critically injured in January 2011 when a man went on a shooting rampage outside a supermarket where the congresswoman was meeting with constituents. She has since become a leading voice for gun control, and she praised Chipman on Wednesday. 

“As a former ATF special agent, David will be able to address the most pressing issues facing the bureau from day one, including reducing gun violence,” Giffords, whose husband is Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), said in a statement. “David has spent his career serving the public, combating violent crime, and striving to make our nation and our communities safer.” 

She also praised Biden’s planned executive actions. “Days like today are why we fought so hard to bring a gun safety champion to the White House,” Giffords said. 

The ATF director role has often become embroiled in politics, and it is not clear if Chipman can be confirmed in an evenly divided Senate given his record of advocating for tougher gun laws. The last permanent director of the bureau was B. Todd Jones, who was confirmed in 2013 under the Obama administration and left the post in 2015.

Biden on Thursday will also direct the Justice Department to draft policy that would scrutinize arm braces that help steady AR-15-style pistols. The braces coupled with shorter barrels make the weapons legally pistols, which are far less regulated than functionally identical short-barrel rifles. The Justice Department will also craft a template for states to enact red-flag laws, which empower a judge to keep firearms from people determined to be a threat to themselves or others.

The other actions include a directive to the Justice Department to issue a report on gun trafficking and an order for more funding of community violence intervention programs.

“It is long, long past time for Congress to act,” the senior administration official said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t call for Congress to act and also push through executive actions at the same time.”

In lieu of legislative action, several lawmakers have urged the president to issue executive orders on guns. Four Democratic senators — Robert Menendez (N.J.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) — wrote to Biden last month, asking the administration to regulate ghost guns like other firearms.

“It’s incredibly exciting and a tremendous relief to finally have allies in the struggle against gun violence in the White House,” ­Blumenthal said Wednesday. “Both President Biden and Vice President Harris are longtime champions committed to doing everything in their power to stem the tide of this public health epidemic.”

Republicans contend that tightening gun control would do little to prevent gun violence.

“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said at a recent Judiciary Committee hearing.

Any change to current gun regulations is likely to be challenged in court by gun rights groups. One such lawsuit resulted recently in a federal appeals court rejecting a Trump administration rule change designed to ban bump stocks, attachments to semiautomatic rifles that make the weapons fire much more quickly, similar to fully automatic weapons.

While campaigning for the Democratic nomination, Biden promised that gun legislation would be a “day one” priority for him, including legislation that would repeal liability protections for gun manufacturers. But the White House has yet to release a legislative plan, instead deferring to a pair of bills passed by the Democratic-controlled House last month.

On the liability legislation, as well as executive actions on guns, Biden said in a news conference last month that he planned to do “all of the above” but that it was a “matter of timing,” suggesting other goals were more urgent.

“As you’ve all observed, successful presidents — better than me — have been successful, in large part, because they know how to time what they’re doing — order it, decide and prioritize what needs to be done,” Biden said.

The House measures would expand background checks to include private transactions between unlicensed individuals, while closing what advocates of stricter gun laws have called the “Charleston loophole,” which allows a gun sale to go through if a background check isn’t finished after three days.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has promised to put those bills on the Senate floor for a vote, but it’s unclear whether they can win even a simple majority, much less the support of 60 senators needed to pass most legislation in the Senate.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has signaled opposition to the House-passed gun measures, preferring instead a more modest expansion of background checks that he co-wrote with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.