WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden unveiled his first major steps to address gun violence on Thursday, directing his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns, or untraceable weapons that can be constructed from parts purchased online.
The president also announced his nomination of David Chipman as the director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Chipman is an ATF veteran who currently serves as an adviser for the gun control advocacy group named for former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who survived a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, as a congresswoman.
“Gun violence in this country is an epidemic,” Biden said during remarks in the White House Rose Garden, calling it an “international embarrassment.”
“The idea that we have so many people dying every single day from gun violence in America is a blemish on our character as a nation.”
Biden has come under immense pressure from gun safety advocacy groups and Democrats to fulfill his campaign pledge to tackle gun control on his first day in office after mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia thrust gun control back into the national conversation in recent weeks.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, who joined the president in the Rose Garden to announce the president’s six executive actions on curbing gun violence, said the Justice Department would propose a rule within 30 days to close a regulatory loophole that allows ghost guns, which lack serial numbers, to be purchased without a background check.
Garland said the administration also plans to tighten regulations on the kind of stabilizing braces for pistols used in last month’s Boulder, Colorado, shooting that left 10 people dead.
The Justice Department will propose a rule within 60 days that makes clear a device marketed as a stabilizing brace, which effectively allows a pistol to operate as a short-barreled rifle, is subject to the requirements of the National Firearms Act.
Other actions include directing five federal agencies to make changes to 26 different programs to direct vital support to community violence intervention programs as quickly as possible. The president has already proposed a $5 billion investment in community violence intervention programs over eight years under his infrastructure package.
White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice told USA TODAY the administration incorporated a plan to enact immediate access to funding for community gun violence intervention after an enormous spike in homicides and violence and after consultation with community violence groups who said more investment could be highly impactful.
“It was, in fact, initially, a suggestion that came from the advocates that they could well utilize and absorb $5 billion,” she said, referring to the number Biden has proposed for community gun violence intervention in his American Jobs Plan. “We thought this was an important investment in our safety and our communities and in our economy. In addition, we’re going to be making some other investments.”
As a candidate, Biden pledged to reinstate an assault weapons ban, create a voluntary gun buyback program and send a bill to Congress to repeal liability protections for gun manufacturers and close background check loopholes on his first day in office.
The president instead focused much of his attention in his first days in office on passing his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and, more recently, his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, frustrating some anti-gun violence groups who expected the administration to move faster.
A recent poll ABC News/Ipsos poll found a majority of Americans (57%) disapproved of the way Biden has handled gun violence as president among both Democrats and Republicans.
The president told reporters at his first press conference that addressing gun violence was a “matter of timing,” even though he said he didn’t “need to wait another minute” to address gun violence just days before, following the Boulder shooting.
Rice emphasized the administration has been working on gun violence prevention legislation since before the administration took office and that more executive action should be expected.
“What we put forward today was our initial steps that represent early and important, significant executive action,” she told USA TODAY. “Executive actions take some time to bake and once they were ready to come out of the oven we announced them. We’re working on more, but they may take somewhat longer. We’re not guided by anybody’s external timeline, we’re guided by doing the work, as best we can.”
The White House has urged Congress to pass gun safety legislation, pointing to two bills passed in the House last month. One bill would expand background checks on individuals seeking to purchase or transfer firearms, while the other would close the so-called Charleston loophole, which allows gun sales to proceed without a completed background check if three business days have passed. The bills face uphill battles in an evenly divided Senate.
The president repeated his calls for the Senate to pass the House bills on Thursday as well as take several measures to address gun reform, including reinstating a ban on assault weapons, eliminating gun manufacturer immunity and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, landmark legislation that Biden championed as a senator that enshrined federal protections and support for domestic violence survivors.
“I know it’s painful and frustrating that we haven’t made the progress that we’d hoped for,” Biden said. “No matter how long it takes. We’re going to get these passed. We’re not going to give up.”
Asked about the administration’s future plans for gun reform, including whether the president plans to pitch his gun violence prevention agenda to American voters as he has on his COVID-19 relief package and infrastructure plans, Rice said: “Sometimes the best way to approach legislation is to do it quietly behind the scenes, not always in the public-facing campaign. So we’ll employ different tactics, as we think the circumstances warrant.”
Brian Lemek, executive director of the Brady PAC, the political arm of the gun violence prevention group, praised Biden’s actions and said it’s unfair for him to shoulder the full burden.
“It’s unfair to ask the president to carry the full load here,” Lemek told USA TODAY. “We have an entire body whose responsibility is to support the American people and if we have 90% of Americans supporting expanded background checks, why has the legislature come in to represent their constituents?”
A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll from late March found 90% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans supported universal background checks. The same poll found, overall, two-thirds of voters favor stricter gun control laws.
The president also directed the Justice Department to publish model “red flag” legislation for states that want to enact such laws that enable courts to temporarily bar people in crisis from accessing firearms if they may hurt themselves or others. Biden will also sign an order directing the Justice Department to issue an annual report on firearms trafficking, which the ATF has not done since 2000.
The ATF has been chronically devoid of permanent leadership due to the divisive nature of gun rights.
B. Todd Jones, a former U.S. attorney in Minnesota, announced his resignation less than two years after a contentious Senate confirmation vote. In 2013, Jones became the first permanent director for the agency in seven years.
Asked if he believed Biden would get a Senate-confirmed director, Jones told USA TODAY recently “the window of opportunity is now.”
He said the right combination is someone with expert Justice Department contacts like a former U.S. attorney who knows the back end of criminal and civil prosecution and someone who’s in the bureau.
Chipman served as a special agent at the ATF for 25 years before he joined Giffords’ gun control group. While at the ATF, Chipman helped disrupt trafficking operations in Virginia that were supplying illegal guns to New York City, served as a member of ATF’s version of SWAT, and was named the special agent in charge of ATF’s Firearms Programs.
Chipman also has served on the Firearms Committee of the nation’s largest group of police chiefs, the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety,said Biden’s decision to treat ghost guns “like the deadly weapons they are will undoubtedly save countless lives – as will the critical funding provided to groups that focus on city gun violence.”
The National Rifle Association, the largest gun rights lobby group in the U.S., called the measures “extreme” and said it was “ready to fight.”
Giffords, who is married to Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., said the actions delivered on Biden’s promise to take action in his first 100 days in office.
“Days like today are why we fought so hard to bring a gun safety champion to the White House. These executive actions help address a crisis that devastates communities across the country on a daily basis. Today we have hope that a brighter future is in store,” she said.
Giffords also praised the White House for Chipman’s nomination.
“As a responsible gun owner, decorated law enforcement professional, and gun safety expert, David is the perfect choice for ATF director,” she added.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson, Nicholas Penzenstadler