Joe Biden Races to Deliver Gun Reform Plan as U.S. Fears Violent Re-opening

Gun control advocates hailed President Joe Biden for pushing ahead with long-promised gun ownership reforms after a spate of mass shootings re-energized the partisan debate ahead of what many people fear will be another summer of violence.

The president's new proposals and appeal to Congress come amid concerns that easing COVID restrictions combined with America's fractious political environment might ignite an explosion of gun violence after a near record-breaking year of homicides.

The latest police shooting in Minneapolis—in which a police officer shot and killed Duante Wright, a Black man, during a traffic stop—has revived the bubbling anti-police sentiment that gave rise to last summer's racial justice protests across the nation.

The coming verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin—a former police officer accused of killing George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, the incident that sparked the Black Lives Matter resurgence—is another potential flashpoint that may prompt fresh street protests.

Last year's unrest became a magnet for far-right groups and their sympathizers, resulting in clashes.

The violence turned deadly in places; for example, when Kyle Rittenhouse shot three racial justice protesters, killing two, in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August. New unrest in Minneapolis and elsewhere this summer risks a repeat of such scenes.

Biden said in a press conference last week in the White House Rose Garden that American gun violence is an "international embarrassment." An emotional Biden declared: "This is an epidemic, for God's sake, and it has to stop."

He announced measures to crack down on so-called "ghost guns"—those assembled with no serial numbers—and a type of stabilizing brace that "effectively turns a pistol into a short-barreled rifle," like the one used in the Boulder, Colorado shooting last month.

The Department of Justice will also create "red flag" legislation on which states could model new restrictions. It will include provisions for police officers and family members to request firearms be temporarily taken from people considered dangerous.

Biden also urged Congress to close background check loopholes, ban assault weapons and remove gun manufacturer protections from shooting-related lawsuits.

"This is just a start," Biden said, dismissing concerns about second amendment impingement as "phony arguments."

Biden's jobs and infrastructure plan also proposes $5 billion in funding spread over eight years to support and expand community-based violence prevention programs.

The president added: "No amendment to the constitution is absolute. You can't shout 'Fire!' in a crowded movie theatre and call it freedom of speech."

Rob Wilcox, the federal legal director at Everytown for Gun Safety, said Biden's proposals are "a significant victory for the gun safety movement that will save lives," crediting the president with delivering on "the strongest gun safety platform in history."

"We hope and believe that there are more executive actions to come, but for now, the next step to address this epidemic is to focus on the Senate passing life-saving background check legislation into law," Wilcox said.

Max Markham, the policy director at March For Our Lives—which emerged from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida—characterized Biden's announcement as a first step that will make a "tangible difference."

"There is more that he can and will do," Markham said.

"We're encouraged that the President is moving in that direction, and we'd like to see him go further by appointing a senior-level director of gun violence prevention to marshal the whole-of-government response that's needed to tackle this complicated issue, rather than siloing it in any one agency."

Biden's announcement was bracketed by two mass shootings, one committed by former NFL player Phillip Adams in South Carolina, and the second by a worker at a cabinet-making plant in Bryan, Texas.

These are just two incidents among a steady drumbeat of mass shootings around the country, including high-profile attacks at an office in Orange, California; at spas in Atlanta, Georgia largely targeting women of Asian descent; and the shooting at a supermarket in Boulder.

Since Biden's announcement, there have been several other major shooting incidents around the country.

Gun violence may have dropped out of the headlines during the pandemic, but the situation only grew worse.

The isolation, unemployment, and uncertainty of the pandemic helped drive a spike in mass shootings of 47 percent, with 611 reported nationwide resulting in 513 deaths and 2,543 injuries, according to Gun Violence Archive data.

This compares to 417 mass shootings with 465 deaths and 1,707 injured in 2019.

Mass shootings have continued into 2021, though there are hopes that the much-vaunted "return to normal"—somewhat in doubt due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 mutations in the U.S.—might ease mental health pressures as workplaces, schools and the hospitality industry re-open fully.

But there are also concerns that the grand re-opening will bring with it extremist political violence from those radicalized during the pandemic.

The Anti-Defamation League told Newsweek this month: "The anger and vitriol we saw on January 6 will not dissipate anytime soon," referring to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Several police departments around the country also told Newsweek they were preparing for a surge in political violence as restrictions eased and summer warmed major cities.

Though mass shootings have increased, lockdown restrictions have entirely or partially closed traditional targets like schools, places of worship, entertainment venues, and retail locations.

Shootings at such locations—in recent years including the Las Vegas shooting, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School—have traditionally been the deadliest and most traumatizing to the nation.

Combining America's re-opening with the trend of increasing violence has prompted fears of a new wave of high-profile mass shootings, layered on top of already-surging violence. Americans are also buying guns at record rates, swelling personal armories in a nation that is already home to more civilian-owned firearms than any other.

The pandemic has exacerbated issues of generational poverty and deprivation in America which feed into gang activity and high rates of violence, particularly in America's biggest cities and among minority communities. Gun violence remains the leading cause of death for Black men in the U.S. aged between 15 and 34, for example.

Like law enforcement, gun reform advocates are also worried about what the rest of the year might bring.

"Gun violence is an epidemic within the pandemic, full stop," Wilcox said. "Gun violence in cities has gotten worse throughout the pandemic. This is an extremely troubling trend and we're glad to see the Biden-Harris administration treating gun violence like the public health crisis that it is."

Markham said that without significant investment and regulation, community gun crime will continue. "Reopening itself is not what causes gun violence and mass shootings," he said of easing coronavirus restrictions.

"Retreating back to our 'normal' unfortunately means rising rates of mass shootings. For generations, those who are elected to represent us have sat idly by while rates of mass shootings have continued to increase.

"This should not be normal—it is unacceptable, and we need our leaders to take action to prevent these atrocities."

Despite the violence, the Democrats will have to fight tooth and nail for reform, even with control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, said Biden was making a "liberal power grab," adding he would not allow any such measures in his state.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said the new rules would "surely result in unconstitutional overreach," vowing that "Republicans will strongly oppose and pursue every option—be it legislative or judicial—to protect the right to keep and bear arms."

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) meanwhile—who has come under fire for his refusal to certify the presidential election results—said Biden's dismissal of second amendment concerns as phony "about sums up his view of the Constitution in general."

The president has the backing of most Democratic senators and representatives, and, despite the strong pushback from many Republicans, he might yet find some sympathetic ears across the aisle.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), for example, wrote on Twitter: "If done in a manner that respects the rights of law-abiding citizens, I believe there is an opportunity to strengthen our background check system so that we are better able to keep guns away from those who have no legal right to them."

Guns might be a divisive issue in Washington, D.C., but polls indicate that most Americans want new restrictions on gun purchases and ownership.

"Among the American people, there is almost no policy that is more unifying," Wilcox said. "It's been 25 years now since we've seen meaningful federal action on gun safety passed into law—that drought must end, and it must end now."

Markham concurred, telling Newsweek: "It's absolutely possible to achieve bipartisan progress, if we organize and push our representatives for action, because Americans want action."

"And if we continue to face obstructionism in the Senate, we need to eliminate the filibuster, a Jim Crow relic that has hampered progress for centuries," Markham added. "Voters will reward action."

There is an element of tragedy fatigue with American mass shootings. Even horrific incidents like Sandy Hook, Marjory Stone Douglas, and Las Vegas failed to move the needle and win over lawmakers who are onside with the gun lobby.

Still, Wilcox suggested there is a shift underway on Capitol Hill.

"Candidates are now running and winning on gun safety, not running away from it like they used to; the NRA is sidelined like never before, spending more money on legal fees than on lobbying against gun safety; and, perhaps most important, there is now a gun sense majority in the Senate," he told Newsweek.

"There is no question that this is a tough fight. This is a historic opportunity to come together to save lives by passing a constitutional, common-sense policy like background checks on all gun sales––and we need to seize it."

Guns on sale at Illinois shop
Rifles are pictured on sale at Freddie Bear Sports on April 8, 2021 in Tinley Park, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images

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