WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Joe Biden talks about it the “scourge” of armed violenceis his first response to focus on semi-automatic weapons.
America has heard it hundreds of times, including this week after shootings in Colorado and Virginia: The President wants to sign legislation banning high-powered weapons capable of killing many people very quickly.
“The idea that we still allow the purchase of semi-automatic weapons is sick. Just sick,” Biden said at Thanksgiving.
Following last Saturday’s mass murder at a Colorado Springs gay nightclub, he said in a statement, “When are we going to decide we’ve had enough? … We must enact an assault weapons ban to remove weapons of war from America’s streets.”
Such a move is still a long way off in a tightly divided Congress. But Biden and the Democrats have increasingly emboldened each other to push for stricter gun controls — and with no clear electoral consequences.
The Democrat-led House in July, with Biden’s vocal support, passed legislation revitalizing a 1990s ban on certain semi-automatic weapons. And the President has enforced gun bans almost everywhere he has campaigned this year.
Still, the Democrats retained control of the Senate in the midterm elections, and the Republicans claimed their smallest majority in the House of Representatives in two decades.
The tough gun debate follows the passage of a landmark bipartisan gun law in June and reflects the steady progress made by gun control advocates in recent years.
“I think the American public has been waiting for this message,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has been the Senate’s leading advocate for stronger gun controls since the massacre of 20 children at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 “Voters, particularly swing voters, young voters and parents, have longed to hear candidates speak out about gun violence, and I think Democrats are finally catching up where the public has been.”
According to AP VoteCast, a comprehensive survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for The Associated Press, just over half of voters want stricter gun policies nationwide. About 3 in 10 want gun policy to remain unchanged. Only 14% prefer looser gun laws.
There are clear party differences. About 9 in 10 Democrats want stricter gun laws, compared to about 3 in 10 Republicans. About half of Republicans want gun laws to remain unchanged, and only a quarter want gun laws to be relaxed.
When politicians talk about semi-automatic weapons, they usually mean semi-automatic rifles that can fire 30 rounds quickly without reloading. In comparison, most New York City Police Department officers carry a semi-automatic pistol that fires 15 rounds.
Once banned in the United States, high-powered firearms are now the weapon of choice among young men responsible for many of the world’s most devastating mass shootings. Congress allowed restrictions on the manufacture and sale of guns, introduced in 1994, to be phased out a decade later, unable to muster the political support to confront the powerful gun lobby and reintroduce gun bans.
When he was Governor of Florida, current Republican Sen. Rick Scott signed gun control laws into law after mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and a nightclub in Orlando. But he has consistently opposed bans on semi-automatic guns, arguing like many of his Republican peers that most gun owners are using their guns lawfully.
“People are doing the right thing, why would we take their guns away from them?” Scott asked as the Senate debated gun legislation last summer. “It makes no sense.”
He said more psychological counseling, assessments of struggling students, and on-campus law enforcement make more sense.
“Let’s focus on things that would actually make a difference,” Scott said.
Law enforcement officials have long called for stricter gun laws, arguing that the availability of these guns endangers people’s safety and makes their jobs more dangerous.
Mike Moore, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, the country’s third-biggest, said it just makes sense to talk about guns when gun violence is on the rise across the country and what the government can do to make the streets safer. He’s grateful that Biden brings it up so often.
“This is not a one-and-done,” Moore said of the Colorado Springs shooting. “These things are constantly evolving, in other cities another incident is happening at any moment. It’s calling out for the federal government, for our lawmakers, to get out there and make that change,” he said.
In the last six months there has been a supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York; a massacre of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas; and the shooting of revelers on July 4th in Highland Park, Illinois.
Six people were shot dead at a Walmart in Virginia on Tuesday.
Among other things, the law, which Biden signed into law in June, will help states introduce “red flag” laws that make it easier for authorities to confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous.
But a ban on semi-automatic weapons was never on the table.
A threshold of 60 votes in the Senate means some Republicans need to be on board. Most are strongly opposed, arguing that it would be overly complicated, especially as firearm sales and variety have increased. There are many more types of these guns today – and many more guns themselves – than there were in 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed the ban into law.
“I’d rather not try to define an entire group of guns as no longer available to the American public,” said South Dakota Republican Senator Mike Rounds, who is a hunter and owns multiple guns, some of which have been passed down to his family . “For those of us who grew up with guns as part of our culture and using them as tools — there are millions of us, there are hundreds of millions of us — using them legitimately.”
In many states where the bans were enacted, the restrictions are being challenged in courts, bolstered by a Supreme Court ruling in June expanding gun rights.
“We are quite confident, despite arguments from the other side, that history and tradition and the text of the Second Amendment are on our side,” said David Warrington, chairman and general counsel of the National Association for Gun Rights.
Biden was instrumental in getting the ban as a Senator in the 1990s. The White House said mass shootings fell while it was in effect, and when it expired in 2004, shootings tripled.
The reality is complicated.
The data on effectiveness is mixed, and there’s a sense that other measures that are less politically charged may actually be more effective, said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York-Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.” “.
Politically, the ban sparked a backlash, although the final law was a compromise version of the original bill, he said.
“The gun community was furious,” Spitzer said.
The ban has been blamed in some circles for the Democrats’ loss of control of Congress in 1994, although later research has shown that the loss was more likely due to strong, well-funded conservative candidates and county lines, Spitzer said.
After Democrat Al Gore, who campaigned for tougher gun laws, lost to Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 White House race, Democrats largely withdrew until the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. Even then it was not an election campaign topic until the midterms of 2018.
Now gun control advocates are seeing progress.
“The fact that the American people elected a President who has long been a vocal and staunch supporter of bold gun safety legislation — and recently elected a gun-savvy majority into the Senate — says everything you need to know about just how dramatic the policy is on this issue have shifted,” said John Feinblatt, President of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Associated Press writer Nuha Dolby contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s gun policy coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/gun-politics
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