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June 03, 2022 | In The News

Biden Urges Crackdown on Assault-Style Weapons Following Mass Shootings

WASHINGTON—President Biden stepped up his calls for legislation to reduce gun violence in a speech Thursday evening, as House Democrats pressed ahead with their own bill and Senate negotiators worked to reach a narrow bipartisan deal following a series of deadly mass shootings.

Mr. Biden, in a somber address from the White House, said too many places in America had become killing fields, marked by names such as Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland. “For God’s sake, how much more carnage are we willing to accept?” he asked.

Recalling his recent visits to a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school and a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket to console survivors and families of victims of mass shootings there, Mr. Biden said they had “one message for all of us—do something. Just do something.”

The speech came as Congress is seeking a way forward on the emotional and divisive issueof gun violence. The Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to approve a broad package of gun-control measures, while senators continued to work separately toward a narrow bipartisan compromise focused on red-flag laws and background checks.

Mr. Biden said he supported the bipartisan talks, while also throwing his support behind a broad set of what he termed common-sense Democratic measures including reinstating a long-lapsed ban on assault-style weapons, or, failing that, raising the minimum age to purchase such firearms to 21 years old from 18, and banning high-capacity magazines. Many of the proposals he cited have been rejected by Republicans and have no plausible path to passage. 

Mr. Biden didn’t delve into the specific negotiations, but he chastised Senate Republicans, saying many didn’t want to debate or vote on gun measures, and he called on voters to punish the GOP in the midterms if no progress is made in Congress.

Critics of the Democrats’ approach say the measures won’t prevent crime and would curtail gun owners’ constitutional rights. 

“All that the president repeatedly proposes will only infringe on the rights of those law-abiding who have never, and will never, commit a crime,” the National Rifle Association said in a statement.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who has been involved in talks, tweeted that he would vote on any of the proposals mentioned by Mr. Biden. He said he also stands “ready to work across the aisle to find common ground—something that was absent from President Biden’s address.”

Mr. Biden spoke near 56 lighted candles in the background along the Cross Hall of the White House, representing the victims of gun violence in the nation’s 50 states and six territories, according to the White House.

Before the speech, a White House official said that no decision had been made on whether Mr. Biden would travel to Capitol Hill next week to press lawmakers to approve gun-related legislation or if he would allow the negotiations to play out among lawmakers.

House Democrats’ proposal, the Protecting Our Kids Act, would ban the manufacture and sale of high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, raise the purchasing age for AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifles to 21 from 18, establish new federal offenses for gun trafficking and straw purchasing and new requirements for gun storage at home. It also would ensure so-called ghost guns are subject to existing federal firearms regulations.

The legislation serves as a way for House Democrats to stake out a wish list of new laws to respond to the recent mass shootings. But the proposals don’t have any realistic hope of passing the evenly divided Senate, with most Republicans resistant to new gun restrictions and the longstanding filibuster rule requiring 60 votes for most bills to advance.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has scheduled the legislation for a vote on the House floor when Congress returns from recess next week. The House also will vote next week on the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, which would implement a nationwide red-flag law and provide federal grants to encourage states to establish their own, Mrs. Pelosi said in a letter to members on Thursday.

Red-flag laws, which are in place in some states, allow courts to temporarily take guns from people deemed dangerous.

In the coming weeks, Mrs. Pelosi added, the House will hold a hearing on a ban on assault-style weapons. Such weapons were used in the Uvalde and Buffalo attacks, as well as a deadly mass shooting Wednesday at a medical office in Tulsa, Okla.

A 1994 ban, championed by Mr. Biden when he served in the Senate, lapsed nearly two decades ago. In 2013, 16 senators who caucused with Democrats joined 44 Republicans in voting against an amendment that would have revived it. 

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top-ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, dismissed Democrats’ proposed legislation as radical. He said there was no path in the Senate for the Protecting Our Kids Act, noting that the chamber had yet to take up previous House-passed bills to expand background checks.

“What we’re doing here is just designed to appeal to Democratic primary voters,” Mr. Jordan said, nodding to the coming midterm elections. “The bill won’t make our schools safer. It will hamper the rights of law-abiding citizens and it will do nothing to stop mass shootings.”

A dramatic moment during Thursday’s judiciary hearing underscored the often sharp divides on guns. Rep. Greg Steube (R., Fla.), who was participating virtually, held up multiple guns on a live video feed, complaining that the guns’ magazines would be banned under the bill the committee was considering. 

“I hope the gun is not loaded,” said Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, watching from the hearing room.

“I’m at my house, I can do whatever I want with my guns,” Mr. Steube responded.

The Senate’s lead Democratic negotiator, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, said Mr. Biden addressing Americans Thursday night would be helpful.

“Nobody can make the emotional case for why Congress has to act better than Joe Biden. This is somebody who has dealt with an enormous amount of personal loss,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview.

After the speech, he tweeted: “We must do something. And we can. In a thoughtful, bipartisan way.”

He and other Senate negotiators are discussing changes to improve the background check system and regulations for gun storage. They also are crafting a proposal that would encourage states to enact red-flag laws. The talks are exploring spending on mental-health treatment and bolstering school security, two policies Republicans have said could protect against shootings.

For the lead Republican negotiator in the Senate, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the model is Fix NICs, a bill that had overwhelming support from 77 Senate co-sponsors by the time it became law in 2018, as part of a must-pass government spending bill. 

Mr. Cornyn championed the Fix NICs legislation, which sought to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System used for gun purchases, after a deadly mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017. In that case, the U.S. Air Force failed to enter the shooter’s criminal history into the database, a lapse the Fix NICs legislation was specifically designed to address.

The Senate’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, speaking at an event in his home state of Kentucky on Thursday, said talks should focus on mental illness and school safety. He said any legislation must be “consistent with the Constitution and the culture of most of our country.”