Joe Biden, under pressure to act after a slew of mass shootings, has announced his first steps to curb the “epidemic” and “international embarrassment” of gun violence in America.
The president has prioritised the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery during the first two and half months of his presidency. But a series of recent shooting tragedies in Georgia, Colorado and California led to renewed calls for urgent action on guns.
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Biden said he is directing the justice department to tighten regulations on sales of so-called “ghost guns”, which are untraceable firearms assembled from kits.
Other executive actions include a state-level push of “red-flag laws” that allow courts and local law enforcement to remove guns from people deemed a risk to communities.
On Thursday Biden was joined in the sunshine of the White House Rose Garden by Kamala Harris, the vice-president, Merrick Garland, the attorney general, as well as members of Congress steeped in the issue.
“Gun violence in this country is an epidemic and it’s an international embarrassment,” said Biden, pointing out that on Wednesday five people were killed – including young children – in a shooting at a home near Rock Hill in South Carolina.
About 316 people are shot every day in America and 106 of them die, he noted, “hitting Black and brown communities the hardest”. Gun violence is estimated to cost the nation $280bn a year, according to the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. “This is an epidemic, for God’s sake, and it has to stop,” an emotional Biden said.
The White House event included parents family members who have lost loved ones to the scourge. “They know what it’s like to bury a piece of their soul deep in the earth,” remarked Biden, who has endured his own measure of loss. “They understand that.”
Seeking to break a Washington paralysis that confounded former president Barack Obama, even after horrific mass shootings, Biden said he was announcing immediate concrete actions that he can take now without Congress. Republicans have long resisted fundamental reform, citing the second amendment to the constitution that protects the right to bear arms.
“Nothing I’m about to recommend in any way impinges on the second amendment,” Biden insisted. “They’re phony arguments, suggesting that these are second amendment rights at stake, what we’re talking about. But no amendment to the constitution is absolute. You can’t shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theatre and call it freedom of speech.”
Biden said regulations on the purchase of “ghost guns” would be tightened. More than 30% of the illegal weapons confiscated in some areas of California are “ghost guns”, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“You can go buy the kit,” said Biden. “They have no serial numbers so when they show up at a crime scene they can’t be traced, and the buyers aren’t required to pass background checks to buy the kit to make the gun.
“Consequently, anyone from a criminal to a terrorist can buy this kit and in as little as 30 minutes put together a weapon. I want to see these kits treated as firearms under the gun control act which is going to require that the seller and manufacturers make the key parts with serial numbers and run background checks on the buyers when they walk in to buy the package.”
The justice department is also publishing model legislation within 60 days that is intended to make it easier for states to adopt their own “red-flag” laws. Such laws allow for individuals to petition a court to allow police to confiscate weapons from a person deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.
“Red-flag laws can stop mass shooters before they can act out their violent plan,” Biden said.
The department will also issue, within 60 days, proposed rules that make clear that devices marketed as “stabilising braces”, effectively turning pistols into rifles, will be subject to the National Firearms Act, which requires the registration of firearms. Other measures include a justice department report on arms trafficking for the first time since 2000.
In addition, the White House will provide more than $1bn in funding for evidence-based community intervention and prevention. And Biden nominated a gun control advocate, David Chipman, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But many of his election campaign promises – such as banning assault weapons altogether and requiring background checks for most gun sales – require congressional action. He urged the Senate to pass bills to close loopholes that allow gun buyers to avoid background checks, and curb firearms access for people found by courts to be abusers.
“They’ve offered plenty of thoughts and prayers, members of Congress, but they’ve passed not a single new federal law to reduce gun violence. Enough prayers. Time for some action.”
Thursday’s executive actions were praised by gun violence prevention campaigners as a promising start. Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Sense in America, told the MSNBC network: “We are thrilled about what happened today. This is a huge victory for the gun safety movement. We applaud President Biden for his strong leadership.”
Brian Lemek, executive director of the Brady political action committee, which is focused on gun violence, added: “What couldn’t be more clear today is that elections matter. Joe Biden has been a gun-violence-prevention champion for decades and today he continues to be one … Now he needs a partner, and we urge Congress to come to the table and pass the bipartisan, common sense solutions that will keep our children and our families safe.”
But the top Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy, raised instant objections. “President Biden plans to announce his attempts to trample over our constitutional 2A rights by executive fiat,” McCarthy tweeted. “He is soft on crime, but infringes on the rights of law-abiding citizens.”
And the National Rifle Association vowed to fight Biden’s moves. Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman, said: “Biden has made clear his sights are set on restricting the rights of law-abiding gun owners while ignoring criminals and foregoing substantive measures that will actually keep Americans safe.”