President Joe Biden moved to crack down on gun violence on Thursday by issuing a suite of executive orders directing the Justice Department to limit the proliferation of guns and announcing a nominee to lead the federal agency charged with battling illegal gun trafficking for the first time in years.
The orders and nomination come after months of waiting from advocates and after two recent mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado.
Biden gave the Justice Department 30 days to come up with a proposal to limit so-called “ghost guns,” which are made from kits containing nearly all of the different parts of a weapon without the serial number required by federal law. The administration said ghost guns are a “growing” problem for law enforcement agencies.
The department will also have 60 days to publish model “red flag” legislation for states; to craft a proposal making clear when a stabilizing brace pushes a pistol to effectively become a short-barrel rifle, which faces much tougher federal regulations; and will resume publishing an annual report on gun trafficking.
The administration is also directing federal agencies to quickly begin funneling resources toward community violence intervention programs in hopes of quelling an increase in homicides in many of the nation’s largest cities.
Collectively, the orders represent the administration’s initial effort to bring change to the nation’s largely permissive patchwork of gun laws without passing new legislation, which would be subject to the closely divided Senate’s filibuster rule requiring a supermajority of 60 votes to advance.
“The president will not wait for Congress to act before the administration takes our own steps, fully within the administration’s authority and the Second Amendment, to save lives,” an administration official said on a conference call with reporters on Wednesday night.
Biden formally unveiled the orders on Thursday alongside Attorney General Merrick Garland. He also announced the nomination of David Chipman to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Chipman, a former ATF agent who now works as a senior policy adviser at the gun violence prevention group Giffords, would be the agency’s first permanent head since 2015. The National Rifle Association has long worked to oppose almost any nominee to lead the agency, and former President Donald Trump never put forward a nominee.
Gun violence prevention advocates have long said the agency is woefully underfunded.
“One of the president’s priorities is making sure the ATF has the leadership and resources to complete its mission,” a senior administration official said.
In the aftermath of the shooting that killed 10 people at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, Biden called on Congress to ban assault-style weapons, close loopholes in the background check system and impose restrictions on ammunition magazine capacity. The Colorado gunman appeared to use a pistol with the type of arm brace the administration is hoping to more tightly regulate.
The week before, a gunman had driven to three massage spas owned by Asian Americans in the Atlanta area and killed eight people.
Those mass shootings increased pressure on Biden to act. Gun violence prevention advocates were frustrated that executive orders on the topic were not part of Biden’s initial blitz of executive orders when he assumed office in January.
“We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again,” he said at the time, referring to a section of the 1994 Crime Bill that expired in the George W. Bush administration.
Biden stated that he did not “need another minute” to start taking “commonsense steps” to quell the violence.
Congressional Republicans deny that reining in weapons of war would do anything to stop mass shootings; however, the organization usually pressuring them to vote down reforms ― the NRA ― is currently tied up in bankruptcy proceedings.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki previously acknowledged that legislation would be necessary to make permanent changes. But she said “there’s a lot of leverage you can take, obviously, as president and vice president” beyond legislation.
Expecting legal challenges to its new executive orders, the Biden administration has reportedly consulted with the White House counsel’s office.
Even though Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, most legislation requires at least 60 senators to agree to end debate before it can be brought to the floor for a final vote.
Though Biden has signaled his support for changing how the filibuster works to make it more difficult to use, he has stopped short of calling for its abolishment. Rather, Biden said he supports reverting to a so-called “talking filibuster,” in which senators are required to actually get up and hold the floor by talking about an issue rather than simply threatening to do so, as is the current norm. Some argue that senators would be more likely to agree to bring debate to an end ― regardless of how they plan to vote on the bill itself ― to cut down on the political grandstanding that would result.
Many on the progressive side of the Democratic caucus, however, believe that fully eliminating the filibuster is the only way to enact tangible solutions to a swath of problems, including gun policy.
During a press conference last month ― the first of his presidency ― Biden hinted that he may be willing to support changing the filibuster rule because of the way it has been “abused.”