Joe Biden announced on Tuesday a new slate of executive actions that are aimed at reducing gun violence and the proliferation of guns that are sold to prohibited people.
The president spoke at a community center in Monterey Park, California, meeting victims’ families and community members devastated by a mass shooting that claimed 11 lives and injured nine other people in January following a large lunar new year festival in the city’s downtown.
Biden began his speech with a somber acknowledgment of the victims at Star dance studio, as well as Brandon Tsay, an employee at another ballroom dance hall who disarmed the attacker before he could begin shooting at a second location.
“We all saw a day of festivity and light turn into a day of fear and darkness. A holiday of hope and possibility marked by horror and pain … a sense of safety shattered,” Biden told the crowd. “Survivors will always carry the physical and emotional scars.”
Opinion polls show that a majority of both Democrats and Republicans support universal background checks that would reveal whether a person is a convicted criminal or domestic abuser before allowing them to buy a gun. But with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, there is little hope of Congress heeding Biden’s pleas to pass legislation.
On a swing through California, the president acknowledged this political reality and unveiled an executive order to enforce existing laws against gun sellers who, knowingly or otherwise, currently fail to run the background checks they should.
On a conference call with reporters, a senior administration official said last year’s bipartisan gun safety legislation – the most sweeping of its kind in three decades – “created an opening” for Biden to direct the attorney general to move the US as close to universal background checks as possible without additional legislation.
He will ask Garland to clarify the statutory definition of who is “engaged in the business” of dealing in firearms, the official said. “Number one, to make it clear that those who are wilfully violating the law need to come into compliance with the law and, number two, to make it clear to people who may not realise that, under that statutory definition they are indeed in the business of selling firearms, they must become federally licensed firearm dealers and they must run background checks before gun sales.”
The administration argues that this will mean fewer guns sold without background checks and therefore fewer guns ending up in the hands of criminals and domestic abusers. Garland will also devise a plan to stop gun dealers whose licenses have been revoked or surrendered from continuing to trade.
Biden is also directing his administration to create protocols to support people who survive and are directly affected by mass shootings, including both high-profile incidents and those that have not been covered as widely in the press. The US has already exceeded 100 mass shootings this year.
Many states have victim compensation programs to reimburse victims of violent crimes such as assault, robbery and homicide, and the Department of Justice offers some money for states to distribute after mass violence through the anti-terrorism and emergency assistance program. But this new federal provision is explicitly designed to help victims of mass shootings, so that the response is not left solely to community organizers and residents.
“Our trauma matters no matter how many media cameras are there and how many news stories run on what happens,” said Greg Jackson, executive director of Community Justice Action Fund, a national non-profit that supports and advocates for local violence prevention programs.
Following the mass shooting at Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, in May 2022, the organization called on the White House to create support for victims and survivors of mass violence.
“For too long we were letting local communities and survivors pick up the pieces and navigate through this,” Jackson said. “We haven’t had enough support on the ground, these [executive actions] are gonna require other agencies to get in the game.”
There will also be an effort to hold the gun industry accountable by naming and shaming federally licensed firearms dealers who are violating the law. Garland will release Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives records from the inspection of firearms dealers cited for breaking laws.
Our trauma matters no matter how many media cameras are there and how many news stories run on what happen
The executive order also aims to boost public awareness of “red-flag” laws that allow individuals to petition a court to allow police to confiscate weapons from a person adjudged dangerous to themselves or others.
These extreme risk protection orders have been enacted in 19 states and the District of Columbia but, the White House noted, are only effective if the public knows when and how to use them. Biden’s cabinet will be asked to work with law enforcement officials, healthcare providers, educators and other community leaders to ensure their effective use and to promote the safe storage of guns.
Encouraging states to increase their use of red flag laws has been a central part of the administration’s attempts to decrease gun violence following an unprecedented single-year uptick in homicides, mostly with guns.
This includes educating teachers, police officers and healthcare providers on how and when they can petition a local court to get an order to have firearms taken from someone at risk of injuring themselves or others. But the Biden administration is up against staunch resistance from local law enforcement who believe red flag laws infringe on people’s right to carry and own guns.
Many counties have passed resolutions to declare themselves “second amendment sanctuaries” where officials and law enforcement vow not to enforce gun restrictions and red flag laws. By 2021 nearly 2,000 US counties across 40 states had passed some form of such legislation, according to Gun Owners of America, a lobbying group that advocates on behalf of firearm owners.
The senior administration official insisted that, whatever the likely resistance from Republicans and certain localities, the president’s actions enjoy broad support. “These are not controversial solutions anywhere except for in Washington DC in Congress. The actions the president is proposing to move closer to universal background checks are just common sense.
“Similarly, safe storage, extreme protection orders, these are things that have the support of the vast majority of Americans. The vast majority of Americans are looking for a leader in Washington who will take charge and make their community safer and that is exactly what the president is doing here.”
Biden, who has previously called gun violence in America “an epidemic” and “international embarrassment”, will further order efforts to counter a sharp rise in the loss or theft of firearms during shipping, enlist the Pentagon in improving public safety practices and encourage the Federal Trade Commission to issue a report analysing how gun makers market firearms to children, including through the use of military imagery.
In addition, he will seek to improve federal support for gun violence survivors, victims and survivors’ families. The White House pointed out in a press release that, when a hurricane overwhelms a community, the Federal Emergency Management Agency steps in.
But when a mass shooting does so, “no coordinated US government mechanism exists to meet short- and long-term needs, such as mental health care for grief and trauma, financial assistance (for example, when a family loses the sole breadwinner or when a small business is shut down due to a lengthy shooting investigation), and food (for example, when the Buffalo shooting closed down the only grocery store in the neighborhood)”.
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