Gun control activists grumble: what happened to Biden's gun ban plans?

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The short answer here is that Biden’s anti-gun agenda ran headlong into the political realities on Capitol Hill, but that’s not very soothing to the gun control activists who believed that with Democrats in control of both the executive and legislative branches in Washington, D.C., new infringements on our Second Amendment rights would be swiftly enacted after Biden’s inauguration.

Instead, as the Bloomberg-funded anti-gun website The Trace reminds us, most of the gun control ideas that Biden touted on the campaign trail in 2020 haven’t even gotten a committee hearing, much less a vote on the floor of the House or Senate.

There’s no doubt, Biden has a lot on his plate: navigating COVID-19, an economic recovery, and increasing polarization in the wake of President Donald Trump’s defeat. In contrast to his sweeping campaign agenda, Biden has used his time in office to instead make some small changes that touch on gun violence research and intervention, gun trafficking, and firearm regulation. But Biden and Congress have failed to pass any major legislation to change the nation’s gun laws. “Is anybody clear on what his legislative agenda is now on this issue?” said Igor Volsky, the director of Guns Down America, an advocacy group that supports stricter gun laws. “I certainly haven’t heard anything.”

Congress hasn’t taken up any of the more divisive campaign proposals Biden ran on, including measures to ban the online sale of firearms and ammunition, restrict the number of firearms an individual may buy in a month, and repeal a Bush-era law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that protects gun makers from lawsuits.

Legislation that Biden has backed to expand background checks for firearm sales has stalled, and there’s been no movement on efforts to ban assault-style weapons, which Biden promised in his campaign.  Background checks, perhaps the most important priority for gun reform advocates, had the best bet of advancing in a Democratic-controlled Congress. Yet a House bill remains stuck in the Senate amid Republican opposition, as it has for years.

Again, the simplest explanation for the lack of votes is that support for the measures just isn’t there, even in the House, where Democrats could afford to lose a couple of their members and still pass legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi loves to talk about her support for gun control, but she’s not been able to successfully wrangle her caucus to approve Biden’s gun and magazine ban, his gun rationing scheme, or his pledge to repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.

Rather than aim their criticism at Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, however, most of the gun control activists that The Trace spoke to are directing their ire at the White House, even when they’re complaining about Senate inaction.

It’s not only Republicans who are to blame. Senate Democrats have been unwilling to reform or abolish the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires a 60-vote supermajority for most legislation to pass. Advocates say Biden hasn’t put enough public pressure on Senate Democrats to take a vote on the proposals or reform the filibuster.

“Unless there is a move toward removing the filibuster, I don’t see [gun reform] happening,” said Alex Barrio, director of advocacy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

Murphy, who as a congressman represented Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, before becoming one of the Senate’s most vocal proponents of gun reform, told The Trace that Senate Democrats also need a more aggressive strategy.

“Bring the compromise background checks proposal on the floor and force them to decide,” he said. “But the Senate is clearly not working. I think there’s going to be some very earnest conversations … about restoring the Senate so that we can have real debates on weighty issues and make sure that people who want to use the filibuster actually have to filibuster.”

Instead of pressing Democrats to change Senate rules, Biden has focused on less divisive proposals. Even there, progress has been tenuous and Biden’s reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker has only gone so far. The bipartisan work Biden has lent his support to — like Senators Cory Booker and Tim Scott’s efforts to pass a law that aims to reduce gun violence at the hands of police — has languished while the president focused on infrastructure and his Build Back Better agenda, which could pass without 60 votes.

“I think they negotiated in good faith, and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t yield results,” said Marc Levin, the co-founder of Right on Crime and a conservative criminal justice reform advocate. “When it comes to policies where elbow grease is really needed to get the necessary votes, that elbow grease is being applied elsewhere.”

Not that Biden’s elbow grease is doing him a lot of good when it comes to the multi-trillion dollar social spending bill, which is also bogged down in the Senate with no real path forward.

Ultimately, the dissatisfaction expressed by the gun control lobby towards the Biden administration boils stems from the fact that gun control itself just isn’t as popular as anti-2A activists think that it is, coupled with Biden’s own mistaken belief that he could govern as an FDR-style reformer with a closely-divided Congress and his inability to persuade members of his own party to march in lockstep on the issue.

With the elections coming up in November, Democrats in safe blue districts are going to be pushing hard to enact some type of anti-gun legislation they can tout to their base back home. Most swing-district or vulnerable Democrats, on the other hand, would rather talk about almost anything at all other than Biden’s gun ban plans.

If recent history is any indication, however, running away from the issue may not do Democrats much good. After Democrats took control of the state legislature in Virginia in 2019, they quickly made passage of several gun control bills their top priority, only to run up against a roadblock of several rural Democrat state senators who balked at approving Ralph Northam’s gun ban and compensated confiscation plan. Northam vowed to bring the bill back in 2021, but ultimately decided not to push for the ban in an election year.

Laying low on the issue didn’t help Democrats, who were swept out of all statewide offices and lost their narrow majority in the state’s House of Delegates last November, and the same outcome seems likely in the congressional midterms this November. Many Democrats may want to lay low on the issue between now and November, but I don’t expect many gun owning voters are going to forget the threat that the current iteration of the Democrat Party poses to their right to keep and bear arms.