Since losing his 17-year-old son Joaquin in the 2018 Parkland shooting, Manuel Oliver has been pushing for stricter gun laws. News of the November shooting at Michigan’s Oxford High School, which killed four students, was a visceral reminder of his grief, jolting him into more immediate action. He flew from balmy Florida to Washington, D.C., and planted himself in Lafayette Park.
He vowed to stand there, in the 40-degree chill, until he got a meeting with President Joe Biden, so that he could hold him accountable for his promises to reduce gun violence.
“I’m not here with a personal problem; I am here with a collective problem,” Oliver said one December afternoon, between stints of holding up a pair of signs that together read “End Gun Violence” and his frequent Twitter updates recounting the length of his stay, which had then stretched to seven days. “ It’s actually pretty easy to wait for a meeting after everything I’ve been through.” As of Wednesday, he was still waiting.
Many gun reform advocates say they are disappointed by how little Biden has accomplished in his first term. His record pales in comparison to the expansive agenda he ran on in 2020. He had promised, amid a surge in gun violence, to enact sweeping overhauls that gun reform advocates like Oliver supported. Biden’s gun agenda was central to his campaign, and distinguished him from competitors like Senator Bernie Sanders, which raised expectations even higher.
Leaders of major gun reform groups predicted that his first year in office, with Democrats also controlling Congress, would be an unprecedented period of progress. Now Democrats are expected to take losses in the House and Senate midterm elections — and Biden could be running out of time.
There’s no doubt, Biden has a lot on his plate: navigating COVID-19, an economic recovery, and increasing polarization in the wake of President Donald Trump’s defeat. In contrast to his sweeping campaign agenda, Biden has used his time in office to instead make some small changes that touch on gun violence research and intervention, gun trafficking, and firearm regulation. But Biden and Congress have failed to pass any major legislation to change the nation’s gun laws. “Is anybody clear on what his legislative agenda is now on this issue?” said Igor Volsky, the director of Guns Down America, an advocacy group that supports stricter gun laws. “I certainly haven’t heard anything.”
Congress hasn’t taken up any of the more divisive campaign proposals Biden ran on, including measures to ban the online sale of firearms and ammunition, restrict the number of firearms an individual may buy in a month, and repeal a Bush-era law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that protects gun makers from lawsuits.
Legislation that Biden has backed to expand background checks for firearm sales has stalled, and there’s been no movement on efforts to ban assault-style weapons, which Biden promised in his campaign. Background checks, perhaps the most important priority for gun reform advocates, had the best bet of advancing in a Democratic-controlled Congress. Yet a House bill remains stuck in the Senate amid Republican opposition, as it has for years.
“Republicans are betting that the country is going to become so desensitized to mass shootings that they won’t pay a political price,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a Democrat who is sponsoring background checks in the Senate, told The Trace. “That’s a bad bet.”
It’s not only Republicans who are to blame. Senate Democrats have been unwilling to reform or abolish the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires a 60-vote supermajority for most legislation to pass. Advocates say Biden hasn’t put enough public pressure on Senate Democrats to take a vote on the proposals or reform the filibuster.
“Unless there is a move toward removing the filibuster, I don’t see [gun reform] happening,” said Alex Barrio, director of advocacy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
Murphy, who as a congressman represented Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, before becoming one of the Senate’s most vocal proponents of gun reform, told The Trace that Senate Democrats also need a more aggressive strategy.
“Bring the compromise background checks proposal on the floor and force them to decide,” he said. “But the Senate is clearly not working. I think there’s going to be some very earnest conversations … about restoring the Senate so that we can have real debates on weighty issues and make sure that people who want to use the filibuster actually have to filibuster.”
Instead of pressing Democrats to change Senate rules, Biden has focused on less divisive proposals. Even there, progress has been tenuous and Biden’s reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker has only gone so far. The bipartisan work Biden has lent his support to — like Senators Cory Booker and Tim Scott’s efforts to pass a law that aims to reduce gun violence at the hands of police — has languished while the president focused on infrastructure and his Build Back Better agenda, which could pass without 60 votes.
“I think they negotiated in good faith, and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t yield results,” said Marc Levin, the co-founder of Right on Crime and a conservative criminal justice reform advocate. “When it comes to policies where elbow grease is really needed to get the necessary votes, that elbow grease is being applied elsewhere.”
The only significant action Congress has taken on violence reduction was a small part of the American Rescue Plan, a COVID-19 relief and funding bill aimed at addressing the economic crisis. Congress allocated $350 billion in state and local funding, and the White House encouraged states and cities to use those dollars for community violence intervention.
“His effort to advocate for funding for community violence intervention strategies has been nothing short of historic,” said Greg Jackson, the executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, an advocacy group that pushes for local, non-law enforcement strategies to address gun violence.
Indeed, funding for community-led violence intervention faces fewer legislative roadblocks in Congress than gun reform because funding bills are able to evade the filibuster through a process known as budget reconciliation. Such programs also have conservative support — and significantly less opposition from lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association — because they don’t limit access to guns.
“That could play a real role in augmenting what some local and state governments are already doing,” Levin said.
Several advocates said they recognize the difficult political environment Biden is navigating. As the ongoing debate over the Build Back Better bill shows, the president does not control Congress, where Democrats have razor-thin majorities. The Build Back Better bill includes funding for community violence intervention alongside more costly proposals. As Biden begins his second year in office, his landmark social spending bill remains in flux, with conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia withholding his vote.
Meanwhile, Biden still hasn’t filled some roles that are crucial to helping keep gun violence in check. The president’s nomination of David Chipman to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the main federal agency tasked with enforcing gun laws, was pulled in the face of Senate Republican and centrist Democrat opposition.
“Without somebody who shares the vision of President Biden and is willing to be proactive about implementing some of these needed reforms, it’s really a missed opportunity,” said Adzi Vokhiwa, federal affairs director for Giffords, an anti-gun violence lobbying group.
When faced with repeated high-profile mass shootings, President Barack Obama turned to executive actions to promote his policies in areas where Congress wouldn’t budge. Biden is pursuing a similar strategy, but with less vigor. Earlier this year, as part of a first set of actions on guns, Biden directed the ATF to crack down on unserialized, difficult-to-trace ghost guns. The agency issued a proposed rule in May.
And in June, the ATF proposed new regulations on stabilizing braces, a type of device that effectively turns handguns into short-barreled rifles. The shooter in a March supermarket shooting in Boulder, Colorado, used this configuration. Biden directed the ATF to crack down on gun dealers who have a history of breaking rules, and he directed the Department of Justice to issue model laws that allow law enforcement to temporarily seize guns from dangerous people, known as red flag laws. Another rule requiring gun stores to sell secure firearm storage devices compatible with the firearms they’re selling is set to go into effect in February.
Still, there are questions about whether Biden is using the full might of the executive branch to curb gun violence. These actions fall short of his campaign promises, some of which he could fulfill without legislation: Using the power of the presidency, Biden could create a voluntary gun buyback program, enhance background checks, prohibit the importation of assault-style weapons, and reinstate an Obama-era policy aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people unable to manage their affairs for mental health reasons.
Gun rights groups including the NRA have pushed back against Biden’s policies and opposed Chipman’s nomination to lead the ATF while celebrating state-level successes.
“NRA members have stood firm against President Biden’s efforts,” the group wrote on its legislative blog. “The future is bright for law-abiding gun owners – and not just because it does not include professional anti-gun paycheck-collector David Chipman.” The NRA did not respond to an interview request.
Despite his attempts to work around Congress, the president has not created a dedicated office within the White House to focus on gun violence.
“Having that in the White House would help elevate the issue … and will allow someone to focus on this on a daily basis,” said Dr. Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon in Baltimore and gun reform advocate.
The lack of dedicated staff, some advocates said, has contributed to what they see as a lack of progress in Congress and in executive action.
Policy aside, advocates like Oliver and Sakran say Biden has also failed to use his bully pulpit to put a national spotlight on gun violence. He’s missed opportunities to deliver a national address on gun reform after high-profile instances of violence, they said.
“The president should have been talking to the Congress after the Michigan shooting. Instead of that, he sent his feelings along to the families,” Oliver said. “I was waiting for that president to be in front of his Congress, that is actually on his side, letting them know the urgency.”
That could go far in a moment when Republican-led states are relaxing gun control measures at an unprecedented pace, passing Second Amendment sanctuary laws, making it easier to carry a concealed firearm without a permit, and expanding self-defense laws.
“I think we are losing ground,” Volsky said. “I think that’s the reality.”