President Joe Biden on Tuesday offered comfort, prayers – and the little he can unilaterally do on gun policy – to grieving members of a Los Angeles area community still reeling from a mass shooting at a predominantly Asian dance club in January.
“I’m here on behalf of the American people, to mourn with you, to pray with you, to let you know that you are loved and not alone,” Biden said at the Boys & Girls Club of West San Gabriel Valley in Monterey Park.
“It’s like losing a piece of our souls, like a black hole in your chest you feel you are being sucked into,” Biden said, drawing, as he frequently does, on his own experience losing family members to tragedy. “The anger and pain … the depth of the loss so profound it’s hard to explain.”
There was one more thing he could do, Biden said: sign an executive order stretching current law as much as he can to get as close as the country can get to universal background checks for prospective gun buyers.
“Enough. Do something,” Biden said, repeating the calls of gun control advocates after each mass shooting. “I mourn with you today,” but also, “I’m here today with you to act.”
Biden’s executive order doesn’t – and can’t – do what the president wants to do to control what kinds of guns are sold and who can buy them. Biden has repeatedly called for a resurrection of the federal ban on assault weapons he pushed successfully in the 1990s, when he was a senator, for example, and that can only be done with congressional approval. With Republicans in control of the House, such a measure is a non-starter.
What the executive order does do is ask the attorney general and other Cabinet members to push the limits of existing law to make the gun-purchasing process as tight as possible.
The order directs Attorney General Merrick Garland to define more clearly who is “engaged in the business” of selling firearms. That language change, which would not require congressional OK, would put more people in the category of those required to register as gun sellers under the law. That would mean that those sellers would be required to do background checks before completing a firearms sale.
A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the executive order Monday afternoon said the government has no statistics on how many gun sellers should register as firearms dealers but do not do so. An academic paper published in 2017, however, found that 22% of firearms are purchased without a background check being done on the buyer.
Background checks are required for anyone who buys from a licensed gun dealer. Those who have criminal backgrounds, mental health or drug problems or are subject to restraining orders for domestic abuse are among those who can be denied a gun.
Last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first substantial gun control legislation in almost 30 years, tightened buyer restrictions somewhat, enhancing background checks for buyers under 21 and closing the “boyfriend loophole,” so domestic abusers could be denied a gun purchase even if they were not married to or living with their victims.
But since not all gun sellers are licensed – some sell at gun shows or online – not everyone is subject to a background check. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support universal background checks for would-be gun owners, but Congress has rebuffed many attempts to do so over the years.
The executive order also directs federal agencies to step up awareness of and use of “red flag” laws, which allow trusted community members to petition to have a firearm temporarily taken away from dangerous individuals. Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have red flag laws, but not everyone knows about them or knows how to use them, the administration official said.
Biden also directed the departments of Transportation and Justice to work together to reduce the theft or loss of firearms during shipping, so the guns do not end up in the wrong hands. Theft or loss of firearms increased by 250% from 2018 to 2022 – from about 1,700 in 2018 to more than 6,100 last year, the White House said in a fact sheet on the order, citing statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The president’s order also calls for a coordinated federal response to mass shootings, much as the Federal Emergency Management Agency responds to natural disasters – a stark reminder of how commonplace mass shootings have become in America.
Mass shootings this year alone total 110, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as one where four or more people were killed.
When a racist killer targeted Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo, New York, last year, killing 10, the market closed, leaving the neighborhood with no accessible grocery store, the White House noted in its fact sheet. The president’s executive order directs his Cabinet to come up with a way federal agencies could mount a coordinated response and recommend what added money or authority it might need from Congress to implement the idea.
Since the gun industry is largely held harmless – “the only outfit you can’t sue,” Biden said – the administration will conduct and publish a study on how the firearms industry “aggressively” markets to civilians, “especially minors.” The government will also publish the results of gun dealer inspections, exposing those with unsafe or poor practices, he said.
Meanwhile, Biden said he was asking for more money in the 2024 budget for the Safer Communities Act, funding mental health services and assistance when people lose the family breadwinner in a shooting.
“Congressional Republicans should pass my budget instead of calling for cuts in these services or defunding the police or abolishing the FBI,” Biden said, slamming the “MAGA Republicans” he said were holding up support for grieving communities.
He also called for a ban on assault weapons – winning cheers from the audience from a proposal that has virtually no chance of getting passed by Congress.
“I know your hearts are broken, but your spirits are strong,” Biden said.