Biden Has a New War Room to Tackle Gun Violence. Can It Stop the Bloodshed?

Gun Rights

The NRA had a bad day on Sept. 22.

That was the day President Joe Biden unveiled his new Office of Gun Violence Prevention, the first-ever White House office dedicated to the issue. Sitting in the Rose Garden for the announcement was Rob Wilcox, the initiative’s new deputy director who couldn’t help but think of a two-decade old quote from an NRA official crowing that the powerful gun group would have an office in the West Wing if George W. Bush was elected president.

That never happened. Instead, seated between his kids and fellow deputy Greg Jackson was Wilcox — a longtime gun safety advocate — set to start his job inside the White House.

But not long after, Wilcox had some bad days of his own.

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A month after the office’s unveiling, it had to respond to its first mass shooting, in Lewiston, Maine. Then another one in Chicago. They’re just two of the 630 mass shootings so far this year.

“The gun violence that is happening is unacceptable,” Wilcox said in an interview with POLITICO Magazine. “The truth is that we have a lot of ground to make up.”

Biden can claim credit for signing the first gun safety law in nearly 30 years and has issued a slew of executive orders, but he’s also been criticized by progressives for not doing more. The new White House office was a long-sought goal of gun safety activists, who were eager for further action from the administration, particularly with new legislation all but doomed in Congress amid Republican resistance.

Despite the ongoing carnage, including a tragedy that hit Wilcox’s own family, he remains optimistic that America can tackle this growing crisis. And he made the case that the federal government is building new systems right now that might actually stem the bloodshed.

“Gun violence is rooted in heartbreak,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s rooted in hopelessness.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Your office’s name includes the word “prevention.” Did you expect that responding to, rather than preventing, mass shootings would play such a big role in your job?

The president gave us four clear tasks: The first is to expedite the implementation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the previous executive actions. The second is to identify new executive actions that we can take to reduce gun violence. A third is to expand the coalition of partners that we work with to get more state and local action. And then the fourth is to improve the support for our communities and individuals impacted by gun violence.

And it’s not just mass shootings, it’s concentrations and surges in gun violence. And so was I surprised? No, absolutely not. But my fellow deputy, Greg Jackson, had been working on developing the first-ever, whole-of-government response to gun violence when it occurs even before that shooting [in Lewiston] and so he was well prepared to lead the largest federal response ever to an act of gun violence.

And that’s a system for how federal agencies can jump into action in the event of another shooting?

Exactly. Since we knew this was our job from the jump, we had already worked with the agencies to begin to understand what potential resources they could bring to bear to respond to gun violence. When that tragedy happened in Lewiston, we were just forced into action. That system only gets perfected over time, especially as we look back at lessons learned. We hear more about needs, and we develop a real comprehensive response plan.

The thing that we know is that no shooting is the same. Part of the art of the challenge is not to apply a cookie cutter formula to every incident, but to be thorough with the tools that could be brought to bear so we can be adaptable to what the situation demands.

Do you have specific examples of what this looked like in Lewiston?

My fellow deputy was on the ground within a couple of days — there was obviously a delay since it was an ongoing [manhunt]. We were able to bring multiple agencies to the scene so that we could support the kids that are going back to school and the principals that are dealing with the fallout; the Veterans Affairs Department working with the veterans community; directly addressing the needs of the deaf community, which was specifically impacted in this shooting; and working with the Chamber of Commerce on support for small businesses.

We really were bringing federal resources to bear in a coordinated fashion that just never had been activated like this before.

Is there anything that you learned from this response?

Look, I think the things that we learned are some of the things that Greg and I have always known. The pain and the trauma lasts longer than a news cycle. Families of individuals who are shot live with that the rest of their lives. Parents that lose children will never recover. And communities live with that reverberation of trauma for years and years, if not their entire lives.

What we’ve been able to bring is that perspective to this office, so that the systems that we put in place and the interventions that we support are meant for healing and helping those that are closest to this pain. And it’s not just about mass shootings. It’s about gun violence in all its forms, about domestic violence, about community violence. It’s about suicide. It’s about accidental shootings.

How does your office play a role in coming up with new ideas for executive actions, and should we expect any new policy moves soon?

Yeah, we’ve been working around the clock, and there is so much support in this administration for taking action. Our job is about focusing the efforts of this administration. There are several offices and dozens of agencies that all have specific pieces to address this problem. But the issue is, when you have multiple people attacking the same issue, you can see silos. You can see things happening in parallel, but not with strategic coordination. And so we are a dedicated office that acts as that coordinator.

Both you and Jackson bring experience as not only advocates, but as survivors of gun violence. How has this informed your work?

For example, when it came to the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, we knew that one of the purposes was to implement extreme risk protection order laws and red flag laws. We could dive in and immediately assess the progress in terms of where that funding was and how it was getting to the states. And we convened the states very quickly, to encourage them to get their plans in so that they can begin accessing this money and spending it on the implementation of these red flag laws. Because at the end of the day, we know that these are the types of laws that can save lives because after way too many of these incidents everyone’s saying, “I saw the flag.”

That’s literally the reason my cousin isn’t here today. The man who killed her was in the middle of a mental health crisis that his brother wanted to take action on. He tried some things, but there was no tool at that time to get the guns out of his brother’s hands, even though he wanted to. So that guy walked into the mental health hospital where my cousin was just volunteering for winter break from Haverford College and he shot and killed her and others.

I still today can picture the funeral. I can see where people were sitting. And you want to do something. You want to do something not just for your family, but the families that you don’t even know yet.

There’s obviously a lot of push and pull between policymakers and advocates. Have you disappointed any former colleagues yet in the advocacy world?

You’d have to ask them if they’re disappointed. Look, there’s no time for grace. There’s only time for the urgency of action. And I think people see that that’s how Greg and I move and that we are here to put in all the work and they know the reasons why we do it. And so I think we welcome all the ideas. We’re not shy, to say bring us the best ideas.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge we face is that gun violence has continued. Some of the solutions that have been put in place are beginning to make a difference, and we’re seeing reductions in violent crime and homicide in our cities across this country.

But we still know that the gun violence that is happening is unacceptable, and the president has told us as much — that it doesn’t matter that we passed the first law in 30 years. It doesn’t matter that this administration has taken more executive actions than every other administration combined. What matters is that this gun violence is happening everyday. So I think that the challenge is that we don’t have a minute to spare.

A lot of people are losing hope. Many are scared to send their kids to school. What would you say to Americans who feel like gun violence is never going to end?

The truth is that we have a lot of ground to make up. We’ve had years of underinvestment in the community-based organizations that are doing the hard work on the ground, to intervene and stop violence before it starts — six years where the leading federal agency to enforce our gun laws was without a confirmed director. And we were 30 years from the last time that we had any advancement in our gun safety laws. So we’re just getting started at putting all those pieces into play.

Gun violence is rooted in heartbreak. But that doesn’t mean it’s rooted in hopelessness. In fact, it’s the opposite. And the truth is the 20 years I’ve been involved in this prove that to me. The NRA thought they were going to work out of the West Wing. Twenty years later, we’ve established the first ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

And in 2013, after a tragedy that captured the nation’s attention, we only got 54 votes in the U.S. Senate for a background check policy. And in 2022, after another tragedy at a school and a tragedy in Buffalo, we saw 65 votes in the U.S. Senate for a bill that included multiple interventions, not just when it comes to gun laws, but in mental health.

I see survivors and students and young people leading on this issue in ways they never had before. And so, I’m filled with hope.

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