Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday will try to revive interest in firearms restrictions and tout actions the Obama administration has taken on its own to reduce gun violence, six months after the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and two months after a bill to expand background checks on gun sales failed in the Senate.
Without any legislative accomplishments to point to, Biden plans to release a progress report showing that the administration has completed 21 of 23 executive steps President Obama pledged to undertake in a Jan. 16 speech. He also will renew his repeated urgings for Congress to jumpstart a stalled bill on background checks.
“Congress must also act,” a senior administration official told reporters during a conference call Monday afternoon. “Passing common-sense gun safety legislation, including expanding background checks and making gun trafficking a federal crime, remains the single most important step we could take to reduce gun violence.”
While the official could not cite any specific movement of senators to Obama’s side, he said the White House has continued to engage lawmakers on the topic.
Previous attempts to restart negotiations on a background check bill and other gun control measures have fallen on deaf ears as Congress tackles other weighty matters such as immigration reform and the fallout over multiple administration controversies – everything from revelations about a massive National Security Agency surveillance of millions of Americans to the IRS singling out Tea Party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.
Biden, who Obama charged with heading a gun-control task force after the Newtown shootings, plans to tout the steps the administration has taken on its own, ranging from ending a congressional freeze on federal gun-violence research to addressing barriers that keep states from submitting records to the background check system to ensuring that federal law enforcement agencies trace guns recovered in investigations.
The two remaining goals the Obama administration has yet to complete are Senate confirmation of a new director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and finalizing regulations forcing group health plans to offer mental-health benefits, with other medical services. The administration official said those regulations would be completed by the end of the year.
Obama has nominated B. Todd Jones, the acting director of ATF after the agency meltdown with the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal, but last week Senate Republicans said they were blocking his confirmation until an investigation into Jones’ tenure as U.S. attorney of Minnesota could be completed.
But Obama’s individual executive actions fall far short of his top goal of expanding background checks to gun shows and Internet sales, which require congressional action. The background check bill failed on a 54-46 vote in the Senate in mid-April. Only four Senate Republicans voted in favor of it with all but four Democrats.
The background check bill was only a modest goal for the administration, which had hoped to push through a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, among other gun-control restrictions. But those attempts faced the same fate in a series of showdown votes that spurned the personal pleas of family members of victims of December’s elementary school shooting.
The Dec. 14 slayings at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut were the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single person in U.S. history, and afterward Obama called on the country to put politics aside and come together to take meaningful action to prevent more shootings. Within 15 hours of the attack, an online petition on whitehouse.gov had collected more than 100,000 signatures supporting a renewed national debate on gun control.
The powerful gun lobby quickly mobilized, successfully persuading senators that expanded background checks would trample on Second Amendment rights and criminalize certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens. It would require “lifelong friends, neighbors and family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution,” Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist, said after the vote.
The National Rifle Association campaign to defeat the background check bill was so fierce that Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who co-authored the measure, plans to run a TV ad defending himself against NRA attacks.
Even though Manchin isn’t up for re-election until 2018, he is spending money for his re-election campaign to start running the ad this week, a sign of how eager he is to fend off the NRA assaults early. The NRA is spending at least $100,000 on an ad campaign attacking Manchin for his role in writing the background check bill with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.