Amid a recent rash of gun violence, President Joe Biden took executive action on gun reform Thursday, including placing new restrictions on pistol modification and nominating an anti-gun advocate to helm the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).
Biden’s actions are significant but address only a very small part of America’s enormous gun problem. Instead, they represent an effort by the White House to use the limited tools the president has, given the difficulties in passing new gun legislation through Congress, to make some progress toward reform.
As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, part of the problem is that the US has a lot of guns — more than 120 per 100 people — and those guns are used: The US has about 16 times as many gun homicides per 1 million people as Germany, and it averages one mass shooting (defined as an event in which there are at least four victims, including the shooter) per day.
Those mass shootings have been especially prominent of late. Five people were killed in a shooting Wednesday in Rock Hill, South Carolina, while two people were killed and another two injured in Milwaukee. These violent incidents follow dozens of others in the past month, including a mass shooting targeting Asian-owned Atlanta-area spas that killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Less than a week later, 10 people were killed in a shooting at a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket.
Biden’s executive actions directly address one of those shootings. The Boulder shooter used a pistol modification known as a stabilizing brace, which aids in accuracy and minimizes backward impact. Under the new regulations, pistols with the brace need to be registered with the federal government and will require a more detailed application process.
“There’s no reason someone needs a weapon of war with 100 rounds, 100 bullets, that can be fired from that weapon,” Biden said while announcing the executive orders Thursday. “Nobody needs that.”
The new orders will not, however, affect the sale of assault weapons like the one used in Atlanta and the 2019 Dayton shooting, nor will they close loopholes that allow buyers to escape background checks online or at gun shows. That’s notable because a fifth of all guns sold to buyers don’t require a background check, according to the Giffords Law Center, a national advocate for gun control and firearms restrictions.
There are currently bills that would close this loophole that have passed the House of Representatives and are waiting for a vote in the Senate. There seems little chance of them passing, given Democrats — who broadly support gun reform — don’t have the numbers necessary to do so.
Congress stagnating on gun reform is notable given how popular changing gun policy is with the public: Polling from Giffords and Everytown, another gun control advocacy firm, found that 93 percent of Americans, including 64 percent of Republicans, are in favor of background checks on all gun sales. As the country, largely united in its support for gun legislation, waits for a stagnant Congress to pass meaningful reforms, Biden has now acted unilaterally — his reforms aren’t broad, but they are what is within his power to do.
What’s in Biden’s executive actions on gun control
The president’s new policies attempt to do two things: limit the availability of certain weapons and encourage states to enact gun control legislation on their own. Here’s what Biden implemented Thursday:
- Stopping the sale of “ghost guns:” Ghost guns are handmade firearms sold in kits or 3D printed, meaning they don’t come with a serial number and the government has no ability to trace them. Biden wants to curtail their use, mandating serial numbers be stamped on each part and subjecting buyers to background checks.
- New regulations on pistol-stabilizing braces: Stabilizers can turn pistols into veritable short-barreled rifles, weapons that are more accurate and deadlier than a handgun. Biden wants to treat them as such. Pistols with attached stabilizing braces will now require registration to own, and buyers will need to go through a far more thorough application process.
- Encouraging “red flag” laws: Biden is asking the Justice Department to draw up model legislation to assist states in implementing so-called red flag laws. These laws would allow the courts to bar people from carrying guns if they are shown by family or law enforcement to present a danger to themselves or others.
- Federal studies on gun trafficking: For the first time in 20 years, the ATF and the Justice Department will be charged with issuing annual reports on gun trafficking.
- Investments in community violence intervention programs: Five federal agencies are being directed to send support to these programs. In the infrastructure proposal Biden announced last week, he proposed $5 billion toward community violence intervention efforts, to be paid out in the next eight years.
Biden also announced the nomination of David Chipman to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Chipman spent 25 years as an agent at the ATF and currently serves as an adviser at Giffords.
The ATF bureau chief will need to be confirmed by the Senate — and it is unclear whether a candidate aligned with a gun reform group like Giffords will be able to get the necessary votes for confirmation. It’s common for ATF director candidates to struggle in the Senate: Its last permanent director was B. Todd Jones, who was confirmed in 2013 and left the post in 2015. Since then, all directors have served in an acting capacity.
If broad gun reform is coming, it’ll have to be through Congress
A president can only change gun policy so much without the support of Congress, and despite facing pressure to pass new legislation each time there is a mass shooting, lawmakers have failed to enact new law time and again.
Recently, the Democrat-controlled House passed two bills aimed at changing that. The first, HR 8, sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), would compel unlicensed and private sellers to conduct background checks on all private purchases. As Vox’s Sean Collins has explained:
Such a measure would likely have an immediate effect on who is able to buy guns. For instance, Everytown recently did an analysis of gun sales conducted on the online portal Armslist, and found slightly more than 10 percent of people who successfully bought guns on the marketplace would not have passed a background check submitted by a licensed seller. Overall, according to the gun control advocacy group the Giffords Law Center, 22 percent of all guns are sold without background checks.
HR 1446, sponsored by Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), would close a loophole that allows prospective gun owners to bypass background checks that take the FBI longer than three days to complete. Instead, the FBI would have 10 days to complete a background check, with the option to trigger an additional 10-day grace period.
Both of these bills have stalled in the Senate, standing very little chance of accumulating the 60 votes needed to bypass a GOP-led filibuster. And Democrats, who have 51 votes in the chamber, aren’t unified on what type of gun reform is needed. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has said he would not vote for HR 8 in its current form.
“No, I don’t support what the House passed,” Manchin told CNN in March. “Not at all.”
Manchin and other relative centrists in Congress, such as Susan Collins (R-ME) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), instead support a more conservative bill Toomey and Manchin authored after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. That bill would increase the use of background checks, though not on private weapon sales.
Biden ran for president with an ambitious platform on gun control that included an assault weapons ban and a gun buy-back program. The assault weapons ban in particular looks impossible now, but he promised Thursday he’s not going to stop trying.
“Folks, this is just the start,” Biden said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”