White House mum on potential executive actions on "assault weapons"

White House mum on potential executive actions on "assault weapons"
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Joe Biden continues to push for a vote on the House-approved ban on so-called assault weapons in the lame duck Senate session, even though some of his progressive allies in Congress admit that there isn’t enough support to get a gun ban bill to his desk. On Monday, Biden apparently huddled with some of his senior advisors at the White House to talk strategy, and press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told the Washington Post that the daunting odds “doesn’t mean that he’s going to stop fighting for it or that he’s going to stop talking about it.”

One thing the White House doesn’t want to discuss, however, is the potential for Biden to follow the urging of the gun control lobby and attempt to ban some semi-automatic firearms by directing the ATF to reclassify many semi-automatic firearms as “machine guns” by declaring that they’re “readily converted” to fully-automatic fire.

Jean-Pierre declined to say if the president was discussing any alternatives to the assault weapons ban or if he was considering executive actions on guns that would not require a congressional vote. Biden took a string of actions last year after mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado, including moving to restrict access to “ghost guns” that are assembled at home and other moves designed to make it harder for unqualified people to obtain dangerous weapons.

The president also indicated that he would be working to bolster implementation of laws already on the books, including a measure to facilitate red-flag laws.

Biden said Thursday that it was “ridiculous” that red-flag laws were not being enforced to their fullest extent. Colorado’s red-flag law has come under scrutiny after authorities learned that the alleged gunman who killed five people at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs on Nov. 19 had previously made a bomb threat against a family member.

What’s ridiculous is that the criminal justice system allowed this threat to apparently go without consequence, despite the fact that the suspect was arrested and originally charged with a felony in connection with the threat. A conviction on the felony charge would not only have meant the suspect would have been prohibited from purchasing a firearm under state and federal law, but could have resulted in time behind bars. Instead, for reasons that are still unknown, the charges were apparently dropped and the case sealed, preventing the public from knowing details about how he managed to escape consequences.

Fixing a broken criminal justice system doesn’t fit the Democratic narrative, however. Quite the opposite actually, considering Sen. Chris Murphy is running around declaring that police should be defunded if they’re not strictly enforcing state and federal gun control laws. Biden and his allies aren’t trying to get tough on crime, they’re trying to crack down on a fundamental civil right, and one that’s growing in popularity among all Americans. We just saw nearly 750,000 gun sales during the week of Black Friday, with the National Shooting Sports Foundation reporting that more than 190,000 background checks on gun sales took place on Black Friday itself.

Most of those guns purchased by responsible Americans are precisely the semi-automatic firearms that Biden believes should be illegal for the average citizen to own and possess, but if Congress won’t provide him with the votes needed to impose his ban his friends in the anti-gun movement are already suggesting another idea; banning them through an administrative order. As I wrote last month:

The Violence Policy Center’s Kristen Rand (and a lot of other gun control activists) want the ATF to broadly reclassify semi-automatic firearms as machine guns, and it’s an idea that will likely gain more traction in the gun control lobby if Republicans take back one or both chambers of Congress in the midterms. With no chance of new gun control laws passing on Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court likely to undo some of the existing infringements already on the books, the White House and the executive branch agencies are going to be one of the only places where groups like the VPC can expect to find any traction, and they’re aiming big.

Rand’s argument (one that the gun control group Brady has also made in a recent lawsuit) is that many models of semi-automatic firearms are “readily converted” into machine guns, which would subject them and their owners to the provisions of the National Firearms Act. As evidence, Rand and others point to the increase in the number of firearms recovered by police that have been illegally adapted with auto sears or switches that enable the guns to fire continuously. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that last year police in the city recovered more than 300 firearms that had been illegally modified to full-auto, and lays out in detail the struggles that law enforcement have in trying to combat their growing popularity among the city’s criminal class. The switches are small and easily available, both from online shippers who sent the switches from China and those who make their own on 3D printers, which is why Rand says the focus should be on the guns themselves.

So far the White House hasn’t made any official or even background comments about the gun control lobby’s big idea, but if Biden plans on keeping gun control as one of his top priorities, the odds are good that he’ll once again use the ATF to enact his agenda, as we’ve already seen with his moves targeting unserialized firearms and pistol stabilizing braces. Gun owners should definitely keep an eye on the Senate in the lame duck, but my guess is that any action on “assault weapons” is going to come from the Oval Office and not Capitol Hill.