President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on one of the most extensive gun reform agendas in American history. He pledged to ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, institute a voluntary gun buy-back program, and direct more than $900 million in funding to community-based violence intervention programs. Biden won’t be able to do all that on his own. He’ll need the support of the House, which remains under Democratic control, and the Senate, where the majority is in question. Early January’s runoff elections in Georgia will determine the balance of power in the Senate — or if there will be a 50-50 split in the chamber, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. Under a Republican Senate majority, many of Biden’s gun reform proposals are likely to be dead on arrival. And even a best-case scenario for Democrats does not ensure they will advance. If Democrats manage to gain control of the Senate, the filibuster rule and centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin may present roadblocks.
In either scenario, the Biden administration isn’t without options. Although the president doesn’t have the power to change existing laws or enact new ones on his own, he has the authority to direct agencies, set priorities, appoint leadership, and more. And Biden’s campaign signaled his willingness to act even if his proposals stall in the Senate. “Joe Biden also knows how to make progress on reducing gun violence using executive action,” his website reads. What Biden does is sure to be shaped by his experience leading gun reform efforts over the course of his career. After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, President Barack Obama tapped him to draw up sweeping gun legislation. When bills to expand background checks and ban assault weapons failed in the Senate without Republican support, Obama signed more than two dozen executive orders to improve enforcement of existing laws and strengthen background check databases. But the effort largely failed to curb access to firearms. Another push following the 2015 San Bernardino shooting required the Social Security Administration to turn over to the federal background check system records of people who were adjudicated as mentally ill, and was intended to get the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to more aggressively enforce the law requiring people “engaged in the business” of selling guns to conduct background checks. After Obama signed the directive, aimed at closing the so-called private sale or gun show loophole, the ATF said it was undertaking no new enforcement efforts, and gun show organizers compared it to “fairy tales,” saying it had no effect on their business. [full article]