Gun control advocates express disappointment with Biden

Gun violence prevention advocates were hopeful a year ago that the Biden presidency would make progress on gun control. Instead, as his first year in office draws to an end, they are feeling disappointed.

Advocates say Biden’s response to the recent school shooting in Michigan, when a sophomore opened fire at school and killed four students, fell short, and they are disheartened that the administration’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) withdrew.

Like his predecessors, Biden has issued executive orders on gun violence prevention while legislation to expand background checks has failed in the Senate.

“I think the biggest thing to highlight here is that the president has been a friend to the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement this year and we’re thankful, but frankly, he hasn’t really been a leader,” said Zeenat Yahya, deputy policy director at March for Our Lives.

“We’re definitely surprised. We were really hopeful and he made a lot of promises. We are thankful for some of the actions the president has already taken but there is so much more he can do that’s a comprehensive top-to-bottom approach,” Yahya added.

Advocates wanted Biden to apply more pressure on Congress to move on gun violence, where a 50-50 Senate evenly divided between the parties is a major impediment. Activists acknowledge the political roadblocks, but express disappointment nonetheless.

“It is very difficult for any administration to sort of do enough in that context and I think indeed, we would like to see more from the Biden administration. What we need more than anything right now is a comprehensive strategy to deal with this reality, what is the plan?” said Peter Ambler, executive director and co-founder of Giffords, the gun control group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was gravely wounded in a shooting.

“Do I think they’ve done the most of any administration? It’s not enough,” said Fred Guttenberg, senior adviser of Brady PAC and father of a victim in the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school shooting.

Stef Feldman, a senior adviser to the domestic policy adviser at the White House, pushed back at the criticism that the administration lacks a comprehensive strategy, saying that “a comprehensive strategy is exactly what we have done in 2021 and we will continue to execute on it in the new year.”

She said their strategy includes multiple agencies and addresses mass shootings, suicide, community violence, domestic violence, accidental shootings and family shootings, as well as the demand side of guns and holding dealers accountable.

Biden issued executive orders in June to reduce the proliferation of untraceable ghost guns, regulate stabilizing braces on firearms, and help states enact red flag legislation. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) in May launched a crime reduction strategy that involves investments for intervention programs and targeted enforcement efforts. It has also unveiled a “zero tolerance” policy to take federal licenses away from dealers who sell to prohibited individuals.

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, argued that the Biden administration has been the strongest gun safety administration.

“From their work on stopping illegal gun trafficking with DOJ strike forces, to their strong proposed rule reining in ghost guns that we expect to be finalized any day now, to being strong advocates for a historic investment in community violence intervention programs in the American Rescue Plan, this administration has been a strong ally to the gun safety movement. This year was just the start and we expect more from the executive branch in 2022,” he said in a statement.

Biden spoke briefly after the shooting at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., in November to offer condolences, but advocates wanted more.

“For me, the failure to more dramatically acknowledge what happened in a public way was disappointing. I hope that that doesn’t happen again,” Guttenberg said.

The shooting raised questions about safe storage of firearms in homes and the Biden administration, weeks prior to it, announced a plan to prevent suicide that included steps to promote safe storage.

Senate Democrats, after the shooting, attempted to pass legislation to expand background checks for gun sales but were blocked by Republicans. The president has consistently called on the Senate to pass this legislation and another House-passed bill to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

The American Rescue Plan, which Biden signed into law in March, included funding local governments can use toward community violence intervention and hiring more law enforcement officers. Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which doesn’t have the votes in the Senate to pass, includes a $5 billion investment in community violence prevention and intervention.

Community Justice Action Fund (CJAF), an advocacy group for ending community gun violence, praised the Biden administration’s work for funding community-based violence intervention programs.

“Community violence intervention programs work. Through executive action taken in April, the Biden administration changed 26 grants across five agencies to ensure these evidence-informed lifesaving programs are eligible to receive federal funding for the first time in history,” said Greg Jackson, CJAF executive director.

Advocates question who is managing these efforts without an ATF director.

“They are really doing stuff. The question is, who is going to manage it,” Guttenberg said.

Biden pulled his nominee to run ATF, David Chipman, in September after opposition from moderate Democrats and Republicans. 

“I think it’s really indicative of some of the failures here,” said Yahya. “The fact that there is no ATF director just proves that there is just not enough coordination and lobbying.”

Officials told The Hill the White House is working hard to find a new ATF nominee and called it a priority, but said there is nothing to preview on an announcement before the end of the year.

“David Chipman failing to get confirmed was probably the biggest blow that we’ve seen this year to federal efforts to address the gun violence prevention epidemic. We need a confirmed ATF director,” said Ambler of Giffords, where Chipman is a senior policy adviser.

Chipman, a former ATF agent, said he faced death threats and that the White House didn’t give him enough support while the Senate considered him.

“Knowing that, this administration should again appoint somebody but be prepared for that in a way that nobody’s been prepared for,” Guttenberg said.

Feldman said that “even without a confirmed director this year, ATF has made progress on three significant rules, one on ghost guns, one on arms races, and one on safe storage.”

March for Our Lives has called on the president to create a gun violence prevention director role at the White House. White House officials pointed to Susan RiceSusan RiceAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff’s book based on Russia fiction Biden administration, stakeholders to host interagency event on economic equity Black Caucus pushes for priorities in final deal MORE, the head of the Domestic Policy Council, as the lead on gun violence prevention issues and said Rice and her team are running coordination on the issue.

Advocates all pointed to the ghost guns order when asked for the biggest success out of the White House on guns. Ghost guns are untraceable when they turn up at crime scenes because they don’t have serial numbers and are made through kits.

“Ghost guns are not insignificant,” Ambler said. “Ghost guns are an existential threat to the safety of Americans.”

Advocates are staying optimistic that Congress can move on legislation while the 2022 midterms quickly approach.

“We are closer than we’ve ever been to passing legislation,” Guttenberg said. “My fear is that we’re also closer than we’ve ever been to permanently losing the chance to do so. 2022 is so critical on this issue.”

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