Gun violence epidemic surges in Biden’s first year  

January 24, 2022 - 17:47

Gun violence prevention advocates were hopeful a year ago that the Biden presidency would make progress on gun control. 

Instead, during his first year in office, they are feeling disappointed and frustrated.

According to the Gun Violence Archives, during Joe Biden's first year as president, the U.S. saw a total of 44,868 gun-related deaths in 2021.

In comparison, there were 15,727 deaths in 2017 during former President Donald Trump's first year in the White House.

Traditionally Republicans supported by gun lobby groups oppose any firearm regulations. This is while Democrats generally support stronger gun regulations and reforms. 

However, analysts say Trump left a toxic environment behind that saw a record number of firearm purchases after he left office and a polarized nation.  

He also tapped into an extremist ideology that according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center has seen a rise in white militias who embrace the use of violence to achieve their goals. 

Following two mass shootouts in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in 2019 Trump blamed violence in video games, the internet, and mental illness, but not guns, as the cause of the slaughter that left at least 31 dead and 53 injured in less than 24 hours. 

This is while advocates say Biden’s response to the November tragic school shooting in Michigan, when a high school student opened fire and killed four classmates was a missed opportunity, and their confidence fell further when the White House nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) withdrew.

“David Chipman failing to get confirmed was probably the biggest blow that we’ve seen to federal efforts to address the gun violence prevention epidemic,” said Ambler of Giffords, where Chipman is a senior policy adviser.

Chipman, a former ATF agent, said he faced death threats and that the White House didn’t give him enough support when the Senate was considering his nomination.

Leaders of major gun reform groups had predicted that Biden’s first year in office, with Democrats also controlling Congress, would be an unprecedented era of progress on the controversial issue. Now analysts say Democrats are expected to suffer losses in the House and Senate midterm elections and Biden could be running out of time.

Biden has used his time in office to instead just focus on matters such as gun violence research and intervention as well as gun trafficking.

The U.S. President and Congress have failed to pass any major legislation to change the nation’s gun laws. Igor Volsky, the director of Guns Down America, an advocacy group that supports stricter gun laws has asked “is anybody clear on what his legislative agenda is now on this issue?, I certainly haven’t heard anything”. 

Critics of Trump widely agree that he drew on ideas that Republicans in Congress could embrace without confronting the powerful gun lobbies or restricting any access to weapons which effectively means allowing civilians to remain armed and paving the way for more shootings and mass shootings in the future, and sure enough the past year has seen a record number of firearm purchases and shooting incidents. 

But on the campaign trail, his successor Biden pledged to take concrete measures on the issue including measures to ban the online sale of firearms and ammunition, restrict the number of firearms an individual may buy in a month, and repeal a Bush-era law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that protects gun makers from lawsuits.

However, despite efforts to bring change the majority of Republican members of Congress who oppose changes means the legislature has not passed any of the proposals Biden promised to bring into law. 

The legislation that Biden backed to expand background checks for firearm sales has stalled, and there’s been no movement on efforts to ban assault-style weapons, which Biden promised in his campaign.  

Perhaps the most important priority for gun reform advocates is background checks on potential firearm buyers. This might have had the best chance of advancing in the Democratic-controlled Congress. But again, a House bill remains stalled in the Senate amid opposition from Republicans.

Democrat Senator Chris Murphy, a strong advocate of background checks says “Republicans are betting that the country is going to become so desensitized to mass shootings that they won’t pay a political price,”

It’s not just Republicans who are to blame. Senate Democrats are also complicit as they have been unwilling to reform or abolish the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires a 60-vote supermajority for most legislation to pass. 

Critics say Biden hasn’t put enough public pressure on Senate Democrats to take a vote on the proposals or make any reforms on the filibuster that would bring about effective changes. 

Alex Barrio, director at the think tank, advocacy at the Center for American Progress insists “unless there is a move toward removing the filibuster, I don’t see [gun reform] happening”.

Murphy, who as a congressman represented Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, before becoming one of the Senate’s most vocal proponents of gun reform, also agrees that Senate Democrats need a more aggressive strategy.

He says “bring the compromise background checks proposal on the floor and force them to decide”. 

“But the Senate is clearly not working. I think there’s going to be some very earnest conversations … about restoring the Senate so that we can have real debates on weighty issues and make sure that people who want to use the filibuster actually have to filibuster.”

Instead of pressing Democrats to change Senate rules, Biden has focused on less divisive proposals. Even there, progress has been tenuous and Biden’s reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker has only gone so far. 

When it comes to bipartisan cooperation, Biden has lent his support for the efforts of two Senators trying to pass a law that aims to reduce gun violence at the hands of police, but even that languished as the president was focusing more on infrastructure and his “Build Back Better” agenda. 

Marc Levin, the co-founder of Right on Crime and a conservative criminal justice reform advocate thinks “they negotiated in good faith, and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t yield results”. 

Critics say Biden can turn to executive orders to promote his policies in matters where Congress isn’t offering any support. Biden is said to be pursuing the strategy, but with less vigor or non at all. There are questions over whether Biden is using the full might of the executive branch to curb gun violence; which observers view as a lack of leadership. 

Analysts also say despite some attempts to work around Congress, the president has not produced a White House environment dedicated to tackling gun violence.

Dr. Joseph Sakran, a gun reform advocate says “having that in the White House would help elevate the issue… and will allow someone to focus on this on a daily basis”. 

Nevertheless, many senior American officials in consecutive U.S. administrations are influenced by the powerful lobby group, the National Rifle Association, which advocates for the right to bear arms. 

The NRA has seen another record rise in its membership numbers and many politicians on the lobby group’s payroll don’t want to lose those voters.

A statement from M4OL, founded by survivors of the 2018 mass shooting at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida said 
"On the president's anniversary, at the conclusion of one of the deadliest years for gun violence in our nation's history, we must ask the president bluntly: Mr. President, have you done enough?" the young survivors ask.

Armed with an AR-15-style semi-automatic military assault rifle, former student Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people and injured the same number on a rampage at the Parkland school in 2018.

Such events and many mass shootings prior to it have sparked more widespread calls for restrictions on gun purchasing and ownership, but for many decades now, Congress has failed to do anything.

Even activists acknowledge the political roadblocks means more victims to gun violence in America is inevitable. 

Peter Ambler, executive director and co-founder of Giffords, a gun control group says “It is very difficult for any administration to sort of do enough in that context”

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