Analysis: Biden’s heartfelt plea for gun control adds to daunting policy wish list

The President has already passed a $1.9 trillion Covid rescue plan that reflects the reality that his administration will be mostly defined by his ability to conquer the pandemic that has killed more than half a million Americans. What comes next could be even bigger, as CNN reported on Monday that the White House is already preparing a $3 trillion jobs and infrastructure proposal, the Democratic-led House has sent the Senate a massive election bill and the President also envisages big climate change legislation.

“I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save the lives in the future, and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act,” Biden said.

“We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again. I got that done when I was a senator. It passed. It was the law for the longest time. And it brought down these mass killings. We should do it again.”

The remarks before Biden headed off to Ohio to tout his Covid rescue plan and mark Obamacare’s 11th anniversary reflected the sudden crises that erupt and can disrupt the best-laid plans of any President.

The mass shooting in Colorado — the seventh in seven days in the United States, by CNN’s count — came while his administration struggles to control a flood of child migrants at the border, which his team won’t call a crisis, amid a foreign policy showdown between Biden and two major nuclear powers, Russia and China.
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But White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond told CNN on Tuesday night that the President would seek to mobilize public opinion to change the political dynamics in Washington.

“I think that the will of the people … they will create the demand. We will help lead that and we will help to pass it,” Richmond told CNN’s Pamela Brown on “The Situation Room.”

“The President feels very strongly that he is not going to sit back and watch people get mowed down in the streets without trying.”

No change on Biden’s filibuster stance

Biden later told reporters that he hadn’t started counting votes in the Senate when he was asked about the daunting prospects for gun control legislation.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said later that the President’s opposition to abolishing the filibuster — a procedural rule requiring a 60-vote majority to pass legislation in the Senate, which had scuppered previous efforts on firearms — had not changed in light of the new guns debate.

“He believes that we should work with Democrats and Republicans to get work done for the American people, including common-sense gun safety measures,” Psaki said. Biden would not allow obstruction to thwart his work for Americans, she vowed, but added: “His preference and priority is working with members of both parties.”

Such a position, however, almost guarantees that the latest shooting — along with last week’s massacre in Georgia, which killed eight people at Asian-owned spas — will not produce meaningful new laws, given GOP opposition.

And it’s not even clear that Biden can get the entire Democratic caucus on board. The most moderate member, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said Tuesday that the House-passed bills on firearms went too far.

While gun control groups detect a shift in opposition to new curbs on dangerous weapons in many states and in local political races, there’s little sign of a significant shift in the Washington dynamic. Manchin was a key player in a previous effort to pass moderately tightened background checks into law in 2013 in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, which killed 20 elementary schoolers and six adults in Connecticut. But the limited compromise Manchin brokered with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania didn’t survive the GOP filibuster in a drama Biden watched take place as vice president.

Given the obstacles to passing new firearms laws, the most that progressives may be able to hope for is that if the legislation is blocked in the Senate it will add to the pile of bills — which will likely include sweeping voting rights and climate change legislation — that convinces even skeptics like Biden that his presidential legacy demands removing the filibuster.

But Manchin might also stand in the way again, since he opposes such a fundamental change to the Senate’s way of doing — or not doing — business, reflecting the power of a single senator in a 50-50 chamber.

How reality dampens demands for action in Washington

The doubtful prospects for gun control legislation don’t just show the harsh relative political choices that presidents must make every day, they also underscore the complicated equation set up by the voters of a divided nation in the last election.

Democrats control the presidency as well as both the House and the Senate, by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris being able to cast the tie-breaking vote on legislation that doesn’t have a bipartisan majority. But the characteristics of the US political system and the reality of the filibuster — which was often used by White conservatives in the past to stall civil rights bills — mean a party with a thin majority can find it difficult to enact major changes. And the relative power of the minority, especially in a 50-50 Senate, is far greater than that of the political opposition in most parliamentary systems.

Biden would be far from the first modern president to seek gun control and fall short. Former President Barack Obama, who was traumatized by the Sandy Hook massacre, attracted criticism for not dedicating his entire White House to passing gun control in early 2013. And even former President Donald Trump, who was strongly backed by the National Rifle Association, called for change after mass killings in Texas, Ohio and Florida — though he never made much effort to follow through.

The idea that Republicans will join in any bipartisan effort now to address the root causes of gun violence that would be acceptable to Democrats — for instance, by slowing gun purchases or limiting access to the deadliest weapons — did not last even a day after the Colorado killings.

“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled to discuss gun violence, which was lent more poignant relevance by the latest tragedy.

Cruz was half right — though he proved Tuesday to be one of the worst offenders in gun politics grandstanding — arguing that it was Democrats, not Republicans, who blocked serious revisions after the Sandy Hook massacre. Cruz did push a bill that he wrote with Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, that would boost reporting from agencies and law enforcement institutions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Critics of the Texas senator dispute his claims that it could have stopped several of the mass killings of recent years and see it as a smokescreen to give Republicans cover in order to avoid voting for legislation that would have a greater effect.

Another Republican, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, produced the most eye-popping argument of the day, drawing an analogy between mass killers and those who drive under the influence.

“I think what many folks on my side of the aisle are saying is that the answer is not to get rid of all sober drivers,” said Kennedy, who in 2018 told CNN after the Parkland, Florida, high school rampage that “idiot control” — not gun control — was needed.

His comments served to underscore the gulf in ambition between Democrats who are pushing for laws that make horrific events like the one in Colorado less likely to happen and Republicans who believe wider ownership of guns, not more restrictions, would make Americans safer.

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