Politics

Gun control advocates are frustrated with Biden, Democrats


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FILE – Light from the morning sun illuminates the Senate side of the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 3, 2021. The Senate is poised to vote Wednesday to void a Biden administration regulation that requires businesses with 100 or more workers have their workers vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to weekly testing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

AP

Manuel Oliver remembers when a school shooting could spark a national conversation about gun control. His son, Joaquin, was one of 17 people killed in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, an act of violence that briefly transformed the policy debate over access to firearms.

It’s why he’s so disappointed in the reaction — or lack of reaction — in Washington following last week’s mass shooting at a Michigan high school that left four dead.

“The problem is that we are getting used to these kinds of situations,” Oliver said. “And I remember during the Trump administration, everyone from the Democratic Party would jump and complain about gun violence when something like last week happened.”

Oliver’s despondency was echoed by other gun control advocates. In interviews, lawmakers, activists and former elected officials expressed a deep disappointment — bordering at times on outright anger — with what they regard as Washington’s collective shrug to the latest in a string of school shootings that have occurred in the past decade.

They say the muted response from politicians and the general public is a far cry from the forceful reaction seen after other school shootings, including the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

It’s led some of them to conclude that a movement that until recently had so much political momentum — including the backing of a Democratic-controlled Washington this year — has lost strength in the face of a congressional stalemate.

“I do think there’s some deadening, if you will, to the reactions as they become more commonplace,” said Dannel Malloy, who served as the Democratic governor of Connecticut during the Sandy Hook shooting. “We as a nation have proven ourselves largely impotent to respond.”

“We’re largely back in the same place,” Malloy added.

ANGER AT BIDEN

The frustration is directed at every corner of Washington, including Republican politicians who continue to almost uniformly oppose any new federal measure to restrict access to firearms. Particularly galling to activists was the decision by some GOP lawmakers, including Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, to post photos online of their families carrying firearms about a week after the Michigan shooting.

But in some cases, they also sharply criticized congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden, who they say needed to offer a more forceful response to the shooting, while also devising a more comprehensive policy strategy to reduce gun violence.

“Disappointment doesn’t even begin to describe how I am feeling,” said former Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida, “and how so many survivors, gun violence survivors, parents, people who have lost their loved ones are feeling right now.”

“I absolutely believe the White House can certainly do more to outline a strong plan to tackle the epidemic,” she added.

While Mucarsel-Powell also defended the White House record and argued that it needs the help of a thus-far unwilling Congress, other activists were even more pointed with their criticism of Democrats and the White House.

Oliver called their response “very weak, very fragile, very political.”

“We’re talking about the president of the United States and we’re talking about innocent people dying from something that is preventable,” he said. “So explain to me how we really can’t do anything else.”

Oliver — who said he thought the president should have met with the families of the victims of last week’s shooting — traveled to Washington this week to protest inaction over gun control, planning to stand in front of the White House every day until Biden agrees to meet with him.

Peter Ambler, executive director of the pro-gun control group Giffords, said he wants the entire administration, including the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, to become involved in a “whole-of-government” response to gun violence, particularly as the number of gun deaths across the country spikes in 2021.

He and other activists were stung in September when the president withdrew the nomination of David Chipman to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when it became apparent he lacked enough votes in the Senate for confirmation.

Executive actions by the president are necessary, Ambler said, because of an inability in a closely divided Congress to move gun control legislation of any kind, in the face of strong opposition from the GOP.

Activists are frustrated that the only legislation moving through Congress — a nearly $2 trillion budget bill — can include only economic-focused measures because of the legislative process being used, so that any measures to restrict the sale of firearms could not be attached to it.

“If you’re not fortunate to have the arbitrary distinction of being able to be in the reconciliation package, it can feel like you’re powerless to move your priorities,” Ambler said.

WHITE HOUSE RESPONSE

White House officials counter that Biden issued a series of executive actions on guns earlier this year to combat gun violence, including efforts to crack down on “ghost guns,” which are difficult to track because they are assembled at home, and other modifications that can make firearms more deadly.

Administration officials also point to a provision in the budget package that would funnel $5 billion to community violence intervention efforts. That cash infusion alone would represent the “biggest thing done at the federal level for gun violence” since passage of an assault weapons ban in the 1990s, said Stef Feldman, deputy assistant to the president and senior adviser to the Domestic Policy Council.

“The Biden administration has absolutely done more to reduce gun violence in its first year than any administration in recent history,” Feldman said.

Some gun control activists say they are encouraged by some of the discussions in Washington that have emerged since the Michigan shooting, particularly around the issue of safely securing guns at home.

Democrats haven’t been able to send major gun reform legislation to Biden to sign into law since taking full control of Congress. The House passed two bills to expand background checks for firearm purchases in March, but the measures do not have the necessary 60 votes to overcome a procedural hurdle to advance through the evenly divided Senate.

Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., said the activism that stemmed from the Parkland shooting played a major role in his first campaign for Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. But three years later, Casten and others say it’s become more difficult to replicate that same level of energy, in part because of frustration over a lack of progress in Washington.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily that we lost our moment for action, but because after Sandy Hook and Parkland, we’ve become so inured to this type of tragedy that it’s become harder to mobilize a bunch of outside groups to come out and say this is completely unacceptable,” Casten said.

Polls show that the public often voices greater, but temporary, support for gun control laws in the aftermath of a mass shooting. A recent Gallup survey, conducted before the Michigan shooting, found that 52% of Americans support stricter gun laws, the lowest point since 2014. By comparison, that number stood at 58% in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting and 67% after the 2018 Parkland shooting in Gallup’s surveys.

Oliver said he plans to continue his protest outside the White House as long as it takes to get a meeting with Biden. It’s a necessary step, he argues, to get the president and Washington to renew a debate over access to guns.

“I can stay here forever,” Oliver said. “I just need this to happen.”

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.

Adam Wollner is a deputy editor in McClatchy’s Washington bureau, where he covers politics. He previously covered the 2018 and 2020 elections for McClatchy and campaigns and Capitol Hill for National Journal. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.





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