WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced a series of executive actions on gun control Thursday. They are the first government steps in years to curb gun violence, but they also show the limits of what a president can do without Congress on board.
“Gun violence in this country is an epidemic and an international embarrassment,” Biden said Thursday during a ceremony at the White House Rose Garden.
The actions include cracking down on untraceable “ghost guns,” funding anti–gun violence programs in communities, and limiting the availability of stabilizing braces that can make handguns akin to short-barreled rifles.
But Biden acknowledged that there is only so much he can do. He spent much of his speech imploring Congress to take action. Changing the law to enact an assault weapons ban or fix the country’s loophole-ridden background check system can only be done with Congress.
Whether any substantial gun control measure can pass the Senate, where Republicans have enough seats to filibuster a bill to death, is an open question. Those talks are currently happening behind closed doors.
“I know it’s painful and frustrating that we haven’t made the progress that we’d hoped for,” Biden said after specifically mentioning expanded background checks and an assault weapons ban. “No matter how long it takes, we’re going to get these passed. We’re not going to give up.”
Of the measures announced Thursday, likely the most significant is a crackdown on so-called ghost guns, which are assembly kits of gun parts that are sold without serial numbers or background checks. These allow buyers to quickly put together a fully functioning, untraceable firearm.
“Anyone from a criminal to a terrorist can buy this kit and in as little as 30 minutes put together a weapon. I want to see these kits treated as firearms,” said Biden.
He said his administration will require these kits to be made with serial numbers subjected to background check rules, essentially applying the same standards that come with selling a fully assembled gun.
The administration is also pushing out hundreds of millions of dollars for anti–gun violence programs in communities and beginning a study of firearms trafficking.
Some of these measures will have limited real-world impact. The administration is drafting red flag legislation to authorize law enforcement to seize guns from people who are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. But this legislation is just a template, and it is not clear any states will adopt it. Several states have already drafted and passed red flag laws.
Notably absent from the list is an expansion of which gun sellers must perform background checks. Some people are able to sell many guns per year without being subject to the background check standards of retailers because they are not considered to be in the gun sales business. But Biden hinted that more actions will be coming in the future.
The executive orders come shortly after deadly mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder. On Wednesday, an older couple and their two young grandchildren were shot dead in South Carolina; former NFL player Phillip Adams, who killed himself early Thursday morning, is believed to be the shooter.
Gun advocacy groups cheered the executive actions as well as the appointment of David Chipman, a former senior adviser to the gun control group Giffords, as the next director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“Ghost guns allow anyone anywhere to easily obtain an untraceable firearm, and the Biden administration’s decision to treat them like the deadly weapons they are will undoubtedly save countless lives,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Gabby Giffords, a shooting survivor and former member of Congress, who founded the advocacy group named after her, said the actions will “help address a crisis that devastates communities across the country on a daily basis.”
The next major gun control push from Democrats will be to try to fix the country’s broken background check system, which is rife with exemptions and flat-out breakdowns, such as law enforcement not being able to complete background checks within the strict three-day waiting period.
Senate Democrats are trying to lay the groundwork for a bill that expands background checks. In partnership with a regulatory expansion by the White House on individual sales, this could get the US to something loosely equivalent to a universal background check system for the first time.
But Republicans remain dug in against any new gun control measures. At least 10 Republican votes are needed in the Senate to override a filibuster and pass any gun legislation. There were no signs on Thursday that politicians are budging from their usual positions. Republicans and pro-gun groups blasted Biden’s announcement as a violation of the Second Amendment and ineffective at stopping mass shootings.
“The answer is not to restrict the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens, the answer is to go after violent criminals and come down on them like a ton of bricks,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz.