Joe Biden called for an assault weapons ban and tighter rules around background checks for gun purchases on Tuesday, one day after 10 people were shot and killed at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado.
The mass shooting in Colorado came just one week after a 21-year-old man was charged with shooting and killing eight people at massage parlours and spas in the Atlanta area. Six of the Atlanta victims were Asian American, and their killings revived concerns about a jump in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In his first significant remarks on gun safety since becoming president, Biden on Tuesday said he did not “need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common steps that will save lives in the future”.
“We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again,” Biden said, referencing the federal assault weapons ban that was in place from 1994 through to 2004 in the US.
“We should do it again,” he added. He said the Senate should “immediately pass” legislation that was passed in the House of Representatives to “close loopholes in the background check system”.
“This is not and should not be a partisan issue. This is an American issue. It will save lives, American lives, and we have to act,” Biden added. “We should also ban assault weapons in the process.”
A nationwide poll conducted by Morning Consult in autumn found 66 per cent of American voters said they “strongly agree” no gun sale should take place without a completed background check. Another 20 per cent said they “somewhat agree”, while just 10 per cent said they “somewhat disagree” or “strongly disagree”.
Earlier on Tuesday, former president Barack Obama said it was “long past time for those with the power to fight this epidemic of gun violence to do so”.
“A once-in-a-century pandemic cannot be the only thing that slows mass shootings in this country,” Obama said. “We shouldn’t have to choose between one type of tragedy and another.”
The number of mass shootings in the US dipped sharply last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, with many cities and states enforcing stay at home orders and prohibiting large public gatherings. But gun sales soared in 2020, in the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd and in the run-up to November’s presidential election.
Gun safety activists said the recent spate of shootings in both Atlanta and Colorado underscore the need to reform federal gun laws in America, where the Second Amendment to the US constitution enshrines individuals’ rights to “keep and bear arms”.
Any proposals for gun safety legislation are likely to pass the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats, but face an uphill battle in the Senate, which is split evenly, 50-50, between Democrats and Republicans, with Kamala Harris, the vice-president, able to cast a tiebreaking vote.
Under arcane filibuster rules, any gun control law would need to pass a 60-vote threshold — including the support of at least 10 Republicans — in order to be debated.
Joe Manchin, the most conservative Senate Democrat, on Tuesday said he opposed the House gun safety bills cited by Biden and would only support background checks for commercial — not private — gun sales.
“I come from a gun culture, and I’m a law-abiding gun owner who would do the right thing, you have to assume we will do the right thing,” said Manchin, who represents West Virginia. “Commercial transactions should be a background-checked. Commercial, you don’t know a person. If I know a person, no.”
Any assault weapons ban is likely to face even more opposition in the Senate. Local media reported the 21-year-old suspect in the Colorado shooting used an AR-15, a lightweight semi-automatic rifle.
Chuck Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa, said earlier on Tuesday that he would oppose an assault weapons ban, telling reporters: “The AR-15 is one of the most popular guns in America, and not just for sportsmen, but also for people that hunt.”
John Kennedy, the Republican senator from Louisiana, on Tuesday accused Democrats of wanting to “basically get rid of the right to keep and bear arms to stop the killings”.
“Many of the people promoting greater gun control, if you really drill down and probe what they truly believe, they don’t believe in the Second Amendment,” he added.