When Joe Biden campaigned for the president to push for gun control, the United States passed a grim milestone: Most firearms deaths recorded in a single year since systematic tracking began.
More than 45,000 people were shot dead in 2020, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last month. The agency has not yet released last year’s figures, but the rise in gun violence that began with the pandemic continued to rise in 2021, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent tracker.
But while the number of gun deaths continued to rise, Biden’s reform efforts have erupted, leaving some proponents wondering whether he will miss the best window to adopt a significant reform.
“The president needs to show leadership in this area,” said Noah Lumbantobing, communications director for the March for Our Lives advocacy group. “And the fact is, he has not done that in the last year.”
On the campaign trail, Biden fought for a ban on assault weapons, uniform background checks, a halt to the purchase of firearms on the Internet, and a series of executive measures.
But since he’s been to the White House, his ambitions seem more and more like wishful thinking.
Democrats control both chambers of Congress by a slim margin. But the party has struggled to push Biden’s priorities through the Senate, with complicated rules and opposition from his own party’s more conservative members giving Republicans the upper hand.
None of the major items on most gun control groups’ wish lists have become law. A bill that would implement universal background checks has stalled in the Senate, where it does not have enough votes to get the floor for debate. A universal law on background checks votes well and enjoys the support of two parties – partly because these controls are already required, except at gun shows and private sales or gifts in a state.
But even that has not been able to get through the Senate. Given that more ambitious reform measures with greater conservative resistance, such as a ban on assault weapons, appear to be dead in the water.
The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act can give reformers a glimmer of hope. The bill would exclude people with domestic violence from buying guns, even if the offense did not involve a spouse or someone they live with – closing a prominent loophole in the current firearms restrictions. The bill would also ban people from buying guns if convicted of misdemeanor prosecution. The House of Representatives passed the bill with bipartisan support in March, though prospects in the Senate faces the same uncertainty as the proposed law on background checks.
Biden has mostly used executive action to play around the edges of the arms reform. Last May, Attorney General Merrick Garland signed -one repression of “ghost weapons”, the non-materialized firearms that buyers can build from sets at home. The Ministry of Justice will also impose stricter rules on stabilizing braces, a device that makes it a little easier to aim a gun with one hand by tethering it to the forearm.
But even the modest agency rules that will be implemented by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have not yet been finalized. And his attempt to nominate a prominent reformer, David Chipman, to lead the ATF crashed and burned amid opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats in the Senate. Biden has not yet offered a replacement.
Biden’s fight with Congress will almost certainly get worse. His flimsy grip on the Senate could slip off coming midway choice. A bad show could too endanger the democratic majority in the House.
That does not make the situation hopeless for gun reformers, said Adzi Vokhiwa, director of federal affairs at the Giffords Law Center, a legal group set up to combat gun violence. She is still optimistic that the Senate can force a vote on the background check bill, which, even if it fails, will make it clear where lawmakers stand.
“We certainly hoped for a lot with democratic control of both houses of Congress. Legislation will be tough as you get closer to an election, but there is still plenty of time,” Vokhiwa said. “As long as we have people in Congress and the White House , who are committed to this issue, we just want to see progress. “
More conservative reformers care less about Biden’s fixed agenda. Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney and CEO of Right on Crime, a Texas-based criminal justice reform group, said new legislation would not help curb violent crime. In his years as a prosecutor, he rarely felt he needed new laws to win cases involving gun violence. Only a few places have stricter gun rules than Washington, DC, he noted, but the city suffers from one of them the country’s highest homicide rates.
“I used to think you’re solving these problems through legislation,” Tolman said. “But you can not legislate yourself out of the arms issue more than you can legislate yourself out of the war on drugs.… We should lower the crime rate and lower recidivism.”
Reformers from all sides of the spectrum largely agree that tackling the social upheaval that came with the pandemic is the key to reducing gun violence. Biden’s infrastructure law, which the Senate also keeps in limbo, will channel $ 5 billion for interventions in civil violence – an approach successful.
The number of gun deaths and killings marks a sharp turnaround after a long period of decline. The homicide rate rose by 30% in 2020, before continuing to rise last year.
That number seems high, in part because the homicide rate had plunged to historic lows through the 2000s. The U.S. population has also grown, so despite the record number of annual gun deaths recorded by the CDC, the homicide rate is still below its most recent peak in 1991 of 10 per capita. 100,000 people.
But the rising rate of violence worries many because it strongly counteracts the long-standing trend toward greater public safety.
It is unclear exactly what lies behind the rising gun violence, though no one doubts that the pandemic played a role along with frayed relations between police and society in the wake of the 2020 summer of protests. The Americans also went on their biggest arms buying trip in history since the pandemic started with approx 42.7 million firearms have been sold since 2020 began.
“This has been a unique time in terms of gun violence, and we do not have all the answers to what the causes are,” Vokhiwa said. “But we know from the past that having such easy access to weapons is a problem.”