WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Joe Biden speaks about the “scourge” of gun violenceis his go-to answer for zooming in on so-called assault weapons.
America has heard it hundreds of times, including this week after shootings in Colorado and Virginia: the president wants to sign a law banning powerful guns capable of killing many people very quickly.
“The idea that we are still allowing semi-automatic weapons to be bought is sick. Just sick,” Biden said on Thanksgiving Day. “I’m going to try and get rid of assault weapons.”
Following Saturday’s mass murder at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, he said in a statement: “When will we decide we’ve had enough? … We need to enact an assault weapons ban to get weapons of war off American streets ..”
When Biden and other lawmakers talk about “assault weapons,” they are using an imprecise term to describe a group of high-powered weapons or semi-automatic long guns, such as an AR-15, that can fire 30 rounds quickly without reloading. By comparison, New York City Police Department officers carry a gun that shoots about half.
A gun ban is a long way off in a deeply divided Congress. But Biden and the Democrats have been increasingly emboldened to push for tighter gun controls — with no apparent electoral fallout.
The Democrat-led House passed legislation in July to revive a 1990s “assault weapons” ban, with Biden’s vocal support. And the president pushed for a ban almost everywhere he campaigned this year.
Yet in the midterm elections, Democrats retained control of the Senate and Republicans could only claim the narrowest majority in the House in two decades.
The hard talk follows the June passage of a landmark bipartisan gun control bill, and it reflects the steady progress gun control advocates have made in recent years.
“I think the American public has been waiting for this message,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has been on the run since the 2012 massacre of 20 children at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. “There is a thirst from voters, especially swing voters, young voters, parents, to hear candidates talk about gun violence, and I think the Democrats are finally catching up a little bit where the public has been.”
Just over half of voters want gun policies tightened nationwide, according to AP VoteCast, a comprehensive survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago. About 3 in 10 want the gun policy to be maintained. Only 14% prefer looser gun laws.
There are clear partisan lines. About 9 in 10 Democrats want stricter gun laws, compared to about 3 in 10 Republicans. About half of Republicans want gun laws to stay as they are and only a quarter want gun laws relaxed.
Once banned in the United States, the high-powered firearms are now the weapon of choice for young men responsible for many of the most devastating mass shootings. Congress allowed the restrictions first introduced in 1994 on the production and sale of guns to expire a decade later, unable to muster the political support to counter the powerful gun lobby and reinstate the gun ban.
While governor of Florida, current Republican Senator Rick Scott signed gun control bills following mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and an Orlando nightclub. But he has consistently opposed gun bans, arguing like many of his Republican colleagues that most gun owners use them legally.
“People are doing the right thing, why should we take away their guns?” Scott asked when the Senate was negotiating gun legislation last summer. “It does not make any sense.”
He said more mental health services, assessments of struggling students and on-campus law enforcement make more sense.
“Let’s focus on things that would actually make a difference,” Scott said.
Law enforcement officials have long advocated for stricter gun laws, arguing that the availability of these guns makes people less safe and their jobs more dangerous.
Mike Moore, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, the country’s third-largest police department, said it just makes sense to talk about guns when gun violence is on the rise across the country, and think about what the government can do to make the streets safer. He is grateful that Biden brings it up so often.
“This is not a one-off,” Moore said of the Colorado Springs shooting. “These things are evolving all the time, in other cities there is a different incident happening every moment. It cries out for the federal government, for our legislators, to make this change,” he said.
On Tuesday, six people were shot dead at a Walmart in Virginia. In the last six months there has been a shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York; a massacre of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas; and the Fourth of July murder of revelers in Highland Park, Illinois.
The legislation Biden signed into law in June will, among other things, help states enact “red flag” laws that make it easier for authorities to take guns from people deemed dangerous.
But a ban was never on the table.
A 60 vote threshold in the Senate means some Republicans need to be on board. Most are steadfastly against it, claiming it would be too complicated, especially as firearms sales and varieties have skyrocketed. There are many more types of these powerful weapons today than there were in 1994, when the ban was signed by President Bill Clinton.
“I would rather not try to define an entire group of guns as no longer available to the American public,” said South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds, who is a hunter and owns several guns, some of which have been passed down through his family. “For those of us who grew up with guns as part of our culture, and we use them as tools – there are millions of us, there are hundreds of millions of us – using them legally.”
In many states where the bans were enacted, the restrictions are being challenged in court, gaining momentum with a Supreme Court ruling in June that expanded gun rights.
“We are quite confident, despite the other side’s arguments, that history and tradition as well as the text of the Second Amendment are on our side,” said David Warrington, president and general counsel of the National Association for Gun Rights. .
As a senator, Biden was instrumental in securing the 1990s ban. The White House said that while it was in effect, the number of mass shootings decreased, and when it ended in 2004, the number of shootings tripled.
Reality is complicated. The data on effectiveness is mixed, and there’s a sense that other measures that aren’t as politically charged might, in fact, be more effective, said Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York-Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”
Politically, the ban caused a backlash, even though the final law was a compromise version of the original bill, he said.
“The gun community was outraged,” Spitzer said.
The ban is attributed in some quarters to the Democrats losing control of Congress in 1994, though later research has shown that the loss likely had more to do with strong, well-funded conservative candidates and district boundaries, Spitzer said.
But after Democrat Al Gore, who championed tougher gun laws, lost the White House race to Republican George W. Bush in 2000, Democrats largely retreated from the issue until the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. was not a campaign topic. until the midterms of 2018.
Now gun control advocates are seeing progress.
“The fact that the American people have elected a president who has long been an outspoken and steadfast advocate of bold gun safety laws — and recently re-elected a gun-savvy majority in the Senate — says everything you need to know about how dramatic the politics are on this issue. is. have shifted,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Associated Press writer Nuha Dolby contributed to this report.
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