By Michael D. Shear
In the nearly nine months since President Joe Biden signed into law a series of gun safety measures last summer, scores of Americans have been killed or wounded in mass shootings across the country: in the Illinois suburbs, at a Virginia university, in an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado and at a dance studio in this Los Angeles suburb.
Throughout that time, Biden has vowed to seek passage of a new ban on assault weapons “come hell or high water.” But the president and his aides have acknowledged there is virtually no chance of that happening in a Congress that remains deeply divided over how to confront the slaughter of its citizens in repeated spasms of gun-related violence.
So Biden traveled Tuesday to Monterey Park, where a gunman killed 11 people in January during Lunar New Year festivities at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, to announce a handful of steps designed to improve enforcement of existing laws that have so far failed to prevent mass shootings in one American community after another.
“Today, I’m announcing another executive order that will accelerate and intensify this work to save lives,” Biden told a small audience in Monterey Park that included family members and victims of the shooting, which terrorized the Asian American community here.
“It’s just common sense,” the president said during the event, which had the somber tone of a memorial to those who died. “Check whether someone is a violent felon, a domestic abuser, before they buy a gun.”
Biden, who spent time meeting privately with relatives of the shooting victims, during his public remarks offered a somber recounting — one by one — of the 11 people who were killed on “a day of festivity and light turned into a day of fear and darkness.”
One had an “infectious smile,” the president noted. Another exuded “kindness, sweetness and generosity.” A third was “a lifelong learner.”
The visit, and the announcement of a new executive order, is Biden’s latest attempt to express his horror over the continued loss of life and to demonstrate his administration’s effort to reduce the chance of another mass shooting.
But the president is constrained by the Second Amendment and a political system that has so far refused to make progress on his demands for universal background checks for gun sales, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and the repeal of immunity from liability for gun manufacturers.
He repeated the assault weapons demand on Tuesday, noting that he had advanced the effort in the Senate in 1993 to pass a ban, which expired amid political disagreement a decade later.
“None of this absolves Congress from the responsibility of acting,” he said, his voice rising. “Let’s finish the job. Ban assault weapons. Ban them again. Do it now. Enough. Do something. Do something big.”
Biden’s new executive order is far more modest than that kind of lofty ambition.
It directs the attorney general to make sure gun dealers are complying with existing background check laws. It seeks to improve reporting of guns and ammunition that are lost or stolen while in transit. It calls for better transparency about gun dealers who are cited for firearms violations. And it directs agencies to work with the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network to improve the quality of investigations into gun crimes.
Some gun control advocates praised Biden for the new order. John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said the effort to crack down on gun dealers “will significantly expand background checks on gun sales, keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people and save lives.”
But few advocates think that the steps will bring an end to the country’s routine gun violence.
Jose Sanchez, the mayor of Monterey Park, said he is optimistic that the United States will eventually make bigger changes to seriously confront what he called an “addiction” to guns and gun violence in the country.
He praised Biden for signing the new executive order. But he said it is not enough.
“I don’t want in any way to offend the president,” Sanchez said. “Because I think he’s heading in the right direction. I think he’s listening to what we need. But if I were to advise him, and if I were to be able to sit down with him, I would tell him that after he gets himself reelected, that he needs to focus his next four years on making some serious changes.”
On Tuesday, Biden said he would continue to call on Congress to act.
“In the meantime, my administration will continue to do all that we can, within existing authority, to make our communities safer,” he said in the preamble to the executive order.
Tuesday’s executive order is primarily an effort to make sure federal agencies are putting last year’s law into practice.
David Hogg, a co-founder of March for Our Lives and a survivor of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, said in a statement that he was pleased to see Biden taking action.
“In poll after poll, gun safety is a winning issue in elections,” Hogg wrote. “Americans and young people don’t care about excuses. We care about results.”
Hogg predicted that action on gun safety would win the youth vote in 2024.”
Whether that ends up being true could depend in part on whether the actions Biden announced are seen as playing a role in preventing at least some of the mass shootings that would have occurred without them.
And it will depend on how aggressively gun rights advocates fight back. Several groups issued statements Tuesday vowing to do just that.
“Our elected leaders should be supporting those law-abiding Americans instead of finding more ways to hinder their right to defend themselves,” said Katie Pointer Baney, managing director of government affairs for the U.S. Concealed Carry Association.