On the day before US President Joe Biden announced new gun control measures, the US recorded its seventh mass shooting for 2021.
The plans to announce the new measures were already in place before a former NFL player killed five people in South Carolina.
The shooting brought America’s death toll from mass shootings in 2021 to 38, a problem Biden labelled “an epidemic, for God’s sake”.
The new plan tackles ‘ghost guns’
Among the new measures are:
- a crackdown on self-assembled “ghost guns”
- a rule change to classify pistols with stabilising braces as short-barreled rifles
- promises to provide more data on firearms trafficking
- Investing in community violence intervention programs
“Ghost guns” are homemade weapons that are assembled from parts and don’t have a serial number, making it difficult to trace them. In the US, it’s legal to build a “ghost gun” in a home and there’s no requirement for a background check.
Biden’s new rule would require “ghost gun” kits to carry serial numbers and for buyers to get background checks.
The new rules on pistols with stabilising braces — which can effectively turn pistols into rifles — will mean buyers will require a federal licence and pass a more thorough application process.
It’s a long way short of what Biden promised
On the election campaign trail in 2020, the US president promised to take much more forceful action to combat America’s gun violence issue.
His plan, still available on his website, promised comprehensive measures like an assault weapons ban and a plan to buy back those already on America’s streets.
The plan also proposed background checks for all gun sales and banning the sale of guns and ammunition online.
But today’s new measures are a long way short of that, and it’s because of the political reality Biden faces in Congress.
His new rules were issued via executive order, a special power the US president can use to act without the approval of Congress.
But executive orders are limited and Biden’s most ambitious goals would need to pass through the House of Representatives and the Senate.
He said today he wasn’t going to “give up” on that goal.
”There’s much more that Congress can do to help that effort. And they can do it right now,” Biden said,
“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.
Despite the limited scope of the orders, gun control advocates welcomed the moves.
“Each of these executive actions will start to address the epidemic of gun violence that has raged throughout the pandemic, and begin to make good on President Biden’s promise to be the strongest gun safety president in history,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
The new president has been confronted with a spate of shootings
Even before he was inaugurated, Biden had flagged that the US was facing “four historic crises at once” and named the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, climate change and racial justice as the issues he planned to take action on when he took office.
Today he declared another, with seven mass shootings in the US in just eight weeks. Only six mass shootings were recorded in all of 2020 in the US.
Three shootings in February (in Florida, Oklahoma and Minnesota) left a total of 10 people dead.
On March 16, shootings at three spas in Georgia sparked outrage over violence directed at Asian Americans and left eight people dead.
Six days later, there was a shooting at a supermarket in Colorado, which left ten people dead.
Just over one week later, four people (including a child) were killed at a shooting in an office complex.
And on the day before Biden planned to announce the rules, former NFL player Phillip Adams fatally shot five people — a prominent doctor and his wife, their two grandchildren and himself.
The spate of shootings sparked fears that right as America emerged from one of those crises, another was about to fill the void.
Biden passed gun control once. His second attempt fell flat
The now-President was vice-president for eight years under Barack Obama, after all.
And just after the pair had won their second term in office, the US suffered one of its worst-ever mass shootings, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A total of 26 people were killed, including 22 children.
Obama pushed to introduce universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and a ban on high-capacity magazines. A bipartisan bill eventually made it before the US Senate, but failed to win the 60 votes needed to pass. Four Democrats from states with high gun ownership voted against the bill.
After calling gun control the “greatest frustration” of his presidency, in 2016 Obama used his presidential powers to skip Congress and signed executive orders to tighten some loopholes on purchasing a gun and tighten some background checks, but the orders amounted to little tangible action to curb gun violence.
Donald Trump later reversed one of the orders, which stopped people with some mental health conditions from buying guns.
Without a cooperative Congress, Obama and Biden were able to achieve little in the way of gun control in their eight years in power, leaving some to question whether it was their biggest policy failure.
But that’s not the only time Biden has taken on gun control.
As a senator in 1994, he was a key player in passing America’s first assault weapons ban. Then, as now, Democrats controlled the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
That law expired a decade later, and the US hasn’t passed significant gun control measures since.
Congress won’t help Biden either
Just as it was when he was vice-president, Biden is working with a Congress that seems unlikely to entertain any new gun control laws.
Despite Democrats controlling the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, their majority is thin.
In the Senate, it’s as thin as it can get, with Vice-President Kamala Harris breaking the 50-50 split when required.
Any action Biden might want to pass through Congress requires 60 votes (because of the filibuster, which you can learn more about here). Just like his predecessor, Congress is likely to block any new gun control measures.
But executive orders aren’t a long-term solution. They can be reversed by the next president with the stroke of a pen.
And executive action is one of the areas where the US Supreme Court can check the powers of the president by striking down orders it rules violate the Constitution.
One of Donald Trump’s final, and perhaps most consequential, acts before the election was nominating and confirming Justice Amy Coney Barrett, locking in a 6-3 conservative majority on the court.
The orders were already attracting criticism from Republicans and gun rights groups before the details were made public.
The National Rifle Association said in a statement it would fight Biden’s executive actions in court.
“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,” spokeswoman Amy Hunter said.