Gun control is back – at least as a White House topic.
On Tuesday, while President Obama is off in Europe, Vice President Joe Biden will hold an event at the White House focused on executive branch actions taken to reduce gun violence and a renewed effort to get Congress to expand background checks on gun buyers.
“Yes, he will make that push, as well as pointing out that the administration will continue to do everything in its own power to advance this debate,” a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Monday previewing the event.
Tuesday morning, Vice President Biden’s office released a progress report, stating that the administration has completed or made “significant progress” on 21 of the 23 anti-gun-violence measures Mr. Obama announced in January. The measures were a response to the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre in December that shocked the nation.
An effort in the Senate to pass a bill expanding background checks stalled in April, as the Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed, getting only to 54. There’s no public indication that any of the “no” votes are willing to switch, despite efforts by gun-control activists to shame them. And even if the bill could get the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster, its prospects are even worse in the Republican-controlled House.
So why is Mr. Biden trying again to revive the effort? For one, expanded background checks remain popular with the public. Another reason, perhaps the most important, is gut level: The vice president and his boss, the president, have an emotional devotion to this issue.
“Biden believes in this,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “I think there is a certain degree of wanting to fight the fight.”
And, Mr. Fenn notes, Biden’s chief of staff is Bruce Reed, a domestic policy veteran of the Clinton White House and a key player in the successful passage of gun control legislation in 1994. “Bruce is from Idaho – you get gun control if you’re from Idaho,” Fenn says.
Another reason for Biden to continue pushing is to keep up with the chorus of activists fighting to keep the issue alive in the public’s mind. Last week marked six months since Newtown, an emotional moment for the families and a time for stock-taking. Since Newtown, as of June 13, nearly 5,200 people have been killed by firearms in the United States, according to crowd-sourced data collected by Slate.com and the Twitter feed @GunDeaths.
After the legislation failed in the Senate, the gun control battle went to the states. Some have passed stricter gun measures, while others have resisted. Last Thursday, Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) of Nevada vetoed Democratic-backed legislation that would have required background checks for all gun purchases in the state, including private transactions.
Ads wars have also heated up. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and Americans for Responsible Solutions – the gun-control group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, after her near-fatal shooting at a constituent event in 2011 – have been running ads against senators who opposed the background check legislation.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has jumped in with TV and radio ads of its own, supporting senators who have faced major pressure from the gun control groups, such as Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire and Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas, the most vulnerable Democrat up for reelection in 2014.
The NRA is also going after one of its own – Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, co-author of the background check bill and a lifetime member of the organization. In response, Senator Manchin plans to run ads defending himself.
In addition, Mayor Bloomberg has urged donors not to give money to the four Democratic senators who voted against the background check bill, Senator Pryor, Mark Begich of Alaska (who is also up for reelection next year), Max Baucus of Montana (who is retiring at the end of next year), and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
One post-Newtown development that may not help Obama in his quest to pass gun control legislation is the recent revelation of National Security Agency data-mining of phone records and Internet providers. Obama’s insistence that the public should trust the government not to abuse its ability to access private data, in the name of fighting terrorism, easily plays into gun-owners arguments that the background check legislation could lead to a national gun registry and, eventually, government confiscation of firearms.
“It’s not about guns, it’s about trust,” says Rich Feldman, president of the Independent Firearms Association. “It’s the subliminal stuff that goes along with it.”
At Tuesday’s White House event, which starts at 1 p.m. Eastern, Biden will highlight the 21 executive actions addressing gun violence that have been completed since Obama unveiled them on Jan. 16.
“These steps – ranging from ending the freeze on gun violence research, to addressing barriers that keep states from submitting records to the background check system, to making sure federal law enforcement agencies trace guns recovered in investigations – will help keep our streets and our communities safe,” the White House said in the report released Tuesday.
The two pieces of unfinished executive action are: Senate confirmation of B. Todd Jones as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and finalization of regulations governing how group health plans that offer mental health benefits must cover them at parity with medical and surgical benefits.