Despite rhetoric, both Trump and Biden have had limited power to change gun policy

Gun Rights

When former President Donald Trump addresses a crowd at the National Rifle Association’s Great American Outdoor show Friday in Harrisburg, there’s little doubt that his remarks about the right to bear arms will be well received.

Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, has twice been endorsed by the NRA for his “steadfast support” of the gun rights advocacy group, the Second Amendment, and self-defense rights.

President Joe Biden, who is running for reelection, is cast by the NRA unequivocally as the enemy of gun owners. In a call to defeat Biden, the NRA claims his plan is to severely restrict gun rights by banning and confiscating semi-automatic weapons, enact Red Flag laws that allow the seizure of guns, and require firearms licensing and registration.

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In reality, neither president, political observers say, has had the opportunity to sign sweeping gun legislation or effectuate dramatic changes in gun policy. While Biden has taken some steps it remains to be seen whether they’ll have the desired effect.

And while Biden has pushed for tougher gun control for decades, including by authoring the Senate version of the 1994 assault weapons ban, Trump’s opposition to gun control has not always been absolute.

“We haven’t seen any gigantic gun policy emanating from Congress over their presidencies, so what have they done?” said Chirs Borick, director of Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “It’s all been regulatory and rhetorical.”

With Pennsylvania and its 19 electoral college votes seen as essential to winning the presidency, both candidates have made the Keystone State an early focus of their campaigns. Each visited Pennsylvania several times last year.

Biden, however, didn’t mention guns or gun control during his first visit of the year on Jan. 5, instead focusing on Trump and the threat his second presidency would pose to democracy. 

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And while the Democratic National Committee is using Trump’s appearance before members of the NRA to turn his dismissive words on a school shooting against him on a downtown Harrisburg billboard, guns may not be foremost on voters’ minds in this election.

“We’re not really hearing a lot of discussion about [guns],” Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College, said. “Most of the questions have to do with economic issues, global affairs and border security.”

In the latest Franklin & Marshall poll published Feb. 1, only 8% of the 1,006 registered Pennsylvania voters surveyed said “crime, drugs, violence, and guns” was the most pressing problem facing Pennsylvania, behind the economy, government and politicians, and personal finances.

“It strikes me that it’s not central to the campaign of either candidate except in the ways the parties have used them symbolically,” Yost said, adding that Trump’s visit Friday will pump up his base but is unlikely to resonate with moderate voters.

Trump has not always been in alignment with the NRA, noted Andrew Willinger, director of the Duke University Center for Firearms Law.

In his 2000 book “The America We Deserve,” Trump said that while he was generally opposed to gun control, he supported an assault weapons ban and longer waiting periods to purchase a gun. 

Before becoming president, Trump expressed support for background checks but in 2017, shortly after taking office, Trump ended regulation that made it harder for people with known mental illness to buy guns.

After vacillating on background checks over the next two years, in 2019 Trump threatened to veto legislation under consideration in Congress that would have required universal background checks.

And although he made campaign promises not to let the government take away gun owners’ weapons, in 2018 Trump called on states to enact Extreme Risk Protection Orders, also known as Red Flag laws, which allow family members to petition a court to remove guns from the homes of people found to be threats to themselves or others.

Following the October 2017 mass shooting at an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas where 60 people died, Trump instructed the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to ban the bump stock devices the shooter used to make his semi-automatic rifles fire like machine guns.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Feb. 28 in an appeal of the rule by gun rights advocacy groups.

Despite his contradictions, Trump weakened U.S. gun laws through administrative rulemaking that derailed initiatives to close loopholes in the federal background check law and gun lock requirements.

“There is a limit at a certain point what the president can do without going through Congress,” Willinger said. “On the Trump side, The agenda is more deregulatory.”

Perhaps Trump’s greatest gift to gun rights advocates, Willinger said, was his appointment of federal judges and Supreme Court justices who employ traditionalist interpretations of the Second Amendment in striking down gun control laws. Most recently, the Supreme Court overturned a New York law that required people who applied for licenses to carry a concealed gun to show a legitimate reason to do so. 

Borick, the Muhlenberg pollster, said that while Biden has been a gun control advocate for decades, he hasn’t drawn the wrath from Second Amendment advocates that other Democrats have. 

“Making Biden the demon, perhaps, that they made Obama on gun issues hasn’t been as much of a focus,” Borick said.

In June 2022, Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which closely followed the mass shootings at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket and at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. It was hailed as the most significant gun control legislation since the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Introduced by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecrticut) after negotiations in the Senate, the law includes enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21, support for Red Flag laws, disarming convicted domestic abusers, clarifies background check requirements, and establishes federal laws against interstate gun trafficking.

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It also provided appropriations over five years for community violence intervention, mental health services, and school safety.

“It may be up for debate how much impact the law had but certainly getting something through Congress is unique these days,” Willinger said.

Also in 2022, Biden announced a new Department of Justice Rule banning the manufacture and sale of kits used to produce untraceable ghost guns.

In addition to rolling out implementation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the Biden administration in September established the first White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention. The office is tasked with enhancing the federal government’s partnerships with state and local governments, including establishment of state offices of gun violence prevention. 

And last month, the Biden administration announced executive action to promote the safe storage of guns through outreach by the Department of Education and Department of Justice.

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