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Biden calls for action on gun laws after 2 mass shootings in 2 weeks

Under a divided Senate, President Biden demanded the chamber pass two bills that would tighten federal background check laws and ban high-capacity magazines

boulder shooting memorial

A mourner visits the location where a gunman opened fire at King Soopers grocery store on Monday on March 23, 2021, in Boulder, Colorado. Ten people were killed in the attack.

Chet Strange/Getty Images/TNS

By Emilie Munson
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

WASHINGTON — Urging action by the gridlocked U.S. Senate on a package of gun reforms, President Joe Biden on Tuesday demanded the chamber immediately pass two bills that would tighten federal background check laws and ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

The president’s call came less than 24 hours after a gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo.

“We’ve been through too many of these,” Biden said in a speech at the White House. “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act.”

In the Senate, the measure would face the hurdle of the filibuster, which could only be ended by 60 votes. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said for the first time that she’d be willing to scrap the mechanism, which critics have long decried as an excessive brake on majority rule.

“Congress must act to end the epidemic of mass shootings in this country,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “I support eliminating the filibuster to deliver the changes Americans are demanding, particularly as it relates to common-sense gun control policies such as universal background checks, banning assault weapons, closing the gun show loophole and instituting a federal gun trafficking legislation.”

Biden’s press secretary said Tuesday the president is also considering a range of executive actions on gun laws. Those could reportedly include moves to tackle “ghost guns,” hard-to-trace weapons that can be assembled at home, and law enforcement notifications when background checks fail.

On Capitol Hill, senators held a hearing Tuesday on how to respond to an uptick of gun violence during the pandemic — a forum that highlighted the persistent divide between the two parties on firearms in America and the uphill battle to pass reforms.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer repeated Tuesday that he plans to bring House-passed legislation expanding background checks on gun sales to the Senate floor, although Democrats do not appear to have enough votes to approve the bill.

Schumer also will meet with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D- Conn., who has been leading Senate gun negotiations, and other senators this week to decide a path forward on legislation in the chamber.

“I don’t see a lot of need to make changes to a bill that has 90 or 95 percent public support,” Murphy said of the House bill, which would require background checks for online firearm sales, at gun shows and in some private transactions. “I don’t want to be negotiating against myself when there’s a proposal that is wildly popular, (and) a political movement behind it that is growing stronger.”

But Democrats could indeed end up negotiating against themselves: On Tuesday, the moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. said he opposed two House bills. He said commercial gun sales should be subject to background checks, but sales between private individuals should not.

Schumer also noted that he has not recently discussed a ban on assault weapons with Biden. Democrats have not coalesced around one major proposal to do that, but legislation could block military-style, semiautomatic weapons like those already banned in New York. (Biden helped pass a 10-year federal assault weapons ban as a senator in 1994.)

Democrats have pushed to change federal gun laws for years; Biden worked to strike a deal while he was vice president after the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012. But they’ve failed to reach compromise with Republicans.

Asked if he now had the political capital to get something done, Biden said, “I hope so,” and crossed his fingers.

“I don’t know. I haven’t done any counting yet,” he added.

The number of mass shootings increased in 2020 during the pandemic as the crisis forced more people home and cost many their work or school. The Capital Region was one of several regions that experienced a sharp uptick in gun violence, with law enforcement citing the health crisis as a challenge for their work trying to head off disputes that can lead to bloodshed. People also bought more guns than ever before in 2020.

“We can’t keep up with it,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D- Ill., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We are numb to the numbers. ... That has got to stop.”

Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing on guns exposed the persistent rift between the two parties on federal gun laws. Democrats have championed measures to further regulate gun sales and remove firearms from abusers and people who make threats.

“Gun violence is an epidemic in its own right,” said Blumenthal. “We need to end this epidemic with a comprehensive nationwide approach: expanded background checks; extreme-risk laws to prevent suicides, mass shooting and hate crimes; protecting domestic victims; and safe storage standards. These kind of measures are in our reach.”

Republicans — equally vocal about the need to pass legislation — backed stronger police forces and prosecution of individuals who illegally purchase guns. They said the push by some progressives to “defund the police” has made people less safe.

“What happens in this committee after every mass shooting is Democrats propose taking guns away from law-abiding citizens, because that’s their political objective,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R- Texas, who repeatedly targeted Blumenthal in his comments. “But what they propose, not only does it not reduce crime, it makes it worse. ... When you disarm law-abiding citizens, you make them more likely to be victims.”

To pass a bill, Democrats will either have to strike a deal on one of the most politically difficult issues they face or eliminate the filibuster in the Senate, a change that would allow Democrats to pass bills with no Republican votes, but could backfire in other ways.

The Boulder shooting was the second time in less than a week that the White House ordered flags to fly at half-staff. Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, 21, is in custody and stands accused of killing the 10 victims, including a police officer.

In Atlanta last week, another man shot and killed eight people, including six Asian-American women.

Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday said the Colorado shooting was “baffling.”

“It’s 10 people going about their day living their lives, not bothering anybody,” Harris said. “A police officer who is performing his duties, and with great courage and heroism.”

(c)2021 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)