Joe Biden’s 30-Year Quest for Gun ControlThe Daily
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- 24 Mar 2021
In less than a week, the United States has seen two deadly mass shootings: one in Boulder, Colo., and another in the Atlanta area.These events prompted President Biden to address the nation on Tuesday. In his speech, he said it was time to ban assault weapons.Mr. Biden has been here before. He has tried several times in his political career to bring in gun-control legislation, all to little avail.How likely is this latest attempt to succeed, and what lessons can Mr. Biden take from his decades-long effort?Guest: Sheryl Gay Stolberg, a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. Sign up here to get The Daily in your inbox each morning. And for an exclusive look at how the biggest stories on our show come together, subscribe to our newsletter. Background reading: A deadly shooting at a Boulder supermarket left 10 people dead and a state full of grief and anger.After the second mass shooting in a week, President Biden has said tighter gun laws should not be a partisan issue, but Republicans in Congress have shown little interest in Democratic proposals.For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily. Transcripts of each episode will be made available by the next workday.
From New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is a daily the eyes of the nation are on Boulder. The eyes of the nation are on Colorado.
In Colorado, prosecutors have brought multiple counts of first degree murder against a 21 year old man who walked into a grocery store with a semiautomatic rifle and pistol and killed 10 people.
Every level of law enforcement, federal, state and local, is working together to make sure that we can bring justice. In this case, it was the second mass shooting in the U.S. in less than a week, prompting President Biden to issue an urgent call for action by Congress.
We can ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines in this country once again. I got that done when I was a senator. It passed. There was a law for the longest time and it brought down these mass killers. Today, I spoke with my colleague, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, about Biden's chances of enacting meaningful gun control and the lessons he may be taking from his three decade effort to do so. It's Wednesday, March 24th. So President Biden. Came out on Tuesday afternoon to address the country about the mass shooting in Colorado, and he immediately calls for a ban on assault weapons like the weapon used in Boulder.
And he says, I have done this before and he makes it very personal. I have done this. Remind us what he is referring to. Well, he's absolutely right. He has done this before.
Today, the Judiciary Committee convenes an oversight hearing to address the carnage wrought by deadly military style assault weapons on innocent citizens and the law enforcement officers who seek to protect us all.
So in 1994, after a spate of mass shootings. Biden, who was then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he helped push through the first assault weapons ban.
There are laws we can pass that could keep these weapons out of the hands of many who have, in fact, and will in fact invoke and inflict carnage on the streets of America.
And this was a bill that literally banned certain types of semi-automatic firearms. It also prohibited the manufacture of ammunition magazines that held over 10 rounds. And it was viewed on its passage as a huge victory for President Bill Clinton and Democrats in Congress.
And why was it viewed as such a big victory?
Well, I think it was one of the first kind of real victories for the nascent gun safety movement. You have to remember that mass shootings kind of became a big issue in this country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And those shootings really opened Americans eyes to a terrifying new problem. The idea that you could send your kids off to school and, you know, some person would come in and, you know, shoot up the school and you'd have a slew of Americans dead.
And so this was, you know, really a hot issue on Capitol Hill. And the NRA also was a very powerful organization at that time, also growing in power. And so this was really kind of a match between these two competing forces. And it's also worth noting that this actually came on the heels of another bill that Biden helped push through the Brady Bill, which expanded background checks for gun purchasers. These two bills were clearly a victory for the gun safety movement over the gun rights movement, but it was short lived.
Why? So that same year, nineteen ninety four Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years and it was a huge shock.
This was Newt Gingrich, the Republican revolution, and a lot of Democrats thought the assault weapons ban cost them their seats because some of those who lost had been the targets of the NRA.
So, you know, whether they were right or wrong, the spill was blamed for a lot of electoral losses for Democrats, not just in 1994, but also in the years that followed. And in fact, some people blame the bill for costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000. So Democrats just became really skittish about gun control.
So as meaningful as it would have been for Joe Biden to pass the assault weapons ban, a big lesson of it would have been the perceived steep political cost to his own party and their control of Congress for having done that. Yes, absolutely. And in fact, the bill didn't survive. It had a 10 year sunset provision. And in 2004, it was not renewed. It was allowed to sunset. And a lot of Democrats allowed that to happen.
So in the face of political blowback and lost seats, Democrats lose their enthusiasm for the assault weapons ban.
Yeah, I think that's an understatement. I think they were running away from gun safety legislation writ large. It was just viewed as the third rail for them and they didn't want to touch it.
So tell us about Joe Biden's next big encounter with the question of gun safety.
So at the end of 2012, Barack Obama and Joe Biden are in the second year of their second term. The Sandy Hook shooting happens. And twenty six people, including 20 children, little kids between six and seven years old, are killed. Mm hmm. Obama, you know, decides he's going to take on the issue of gun safety and he calls for Congress to pass legislation and he really puts his political capital behind it. And Joe Biden was always his kind of go to for anything on Capitol Hill because Biden had such strong relationships in the Senate and in Congress generally.
So the president called me in. We have lunch once a week together where there's nothing on the agenda. And he said, Joe, look, you said you don't have to do this if you don't want. But I'd like you to lead this effort.
You makes Biden kind of the point man for passing the bill and the way he said it was a reflection of what sort of the standing assumption is in American politics today that this is kind of a third rail of politics. That if you take this on, somehow there will be severe political price to pay for doing it, because that's what's happened in the past, that's what's happened in the past.
People say and you and for a time it really looks like something might get past. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat, partners with Pat Toomey, a Republican, and they come up with this bill that would extend background checks. And I remember being in the Capitol, in the Senate chamber on the day that it came up for a vote on this vote.
The yeas are 54, the nays are 46. Under the previous order requiring 60 votes for the adoption of this amendment, the amendment is not agreed to and the bill fails.
And there were all of these survivors of massacres, including some who had survived the Tucson shooting in Arizona that injured, gravely injured the congresswoman, Gabby Giffords. They're all in the gallery.
And some of these survivors held the order in the Senate.
Women in their 50s and 60s start shouting, shame, shame.
The gallery will refrain from any demonstration or comment. They're literally dragged off by Capitol Police and senator from Texas.
It's just a devastating loss for the movement and especially for Obama and also for Biden, who really had put their heart and their political capital into tackling this issue. And they really I think the feeling was that if this didn't happen after Sandy Hook, it was never going to happen.
And how much of a factor, Carol, was this lingering fear among congressional Democrats of taking on guns and the gun lobby in the defeat of that Manchin Toomey background check bill?
Well, for Senate Democrats, former colleagues of Biden's voted against the bill. And I think that's a very clear indication that this issue was still too hot for a number of Democrats to handle.
I'm going to speak plainly and honestly about what's happened here, because the American people are trying to figure out how can something have 90 percent support and yet not happen.
So this is the other side of that coin. This is a major defeat both for Joe Biden.
When it comes to gun control and on a much more, as you said, modest, less ambitious version of that than what he got passed in 1994.
Yes, a more modest version and in some ways an event that was more heartbreaking.
There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn't do this. It came down to politics. And so they came to the pressure and they started looking for an excuse, any excuse to vote no.
So I'm curious what happens seven years later when Biden runs for president in twenty twenty? How do all of these experiences get reflected in his approach to guns in that campaign?
So Biden ran in twenty twenty on a very ambitious platform of gun safety restrictions. You know, No. One, he wanted to reinstate the assault weapons ban. He talked about closing loopholes in the federal background check system. He talked about programs to buy back assault weapons and high capacity magazines that were already on the streets. He talked about regulating possession of existing assault weapons under federal law. It was a very, very ambitious platform for somebody who had experienced all the defeats that Biden had experienced on this issue.
But then again, gun control wasn't quite a defining issue in the 20 20 campaign. It was a campaign predominantly about the pandemic. And Democrats didn't control Congress, so in a sense, this muscular platform was kind of theoretical.
Well, I think that's right. It wasn't a defining issue. The defining issues were clearly the economy and the pandemic. But nonetheless, he saw fit to put these things on his website and they're still up there. You can go there and read them today. And it just became a whole lot less theoretical with these two horrific shootings in Atlanta and Boulder that have now really upended Biden's early days and maybe upended his legislative agenda.
We'll be right back. Support for this podcast and the following message come from E-Trade, you want to invest your money, but there's one problem you're not sure where to begin. Luckily, there's ETrade, who offers more than just trading. E-Trade simplifies investing without the financial jargon and has the people to offer guidance and support to make your money work hard for you. For more information, visit E-Trade dot com slash the daily E-Trade Securities LLC member FINRA Sipek. Cheryl, now that these questions of gun control are not theoretical and President Biden is talking about them in the wake of these mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado, what is the political landscape he's operating in and how different is that landscape than the ones that he has operated in in the past 90 four, 2013?
So it's radically different to begin with. In twenty eighteen, a number of moderate Democrats won election to the House in swing districts. These are the kind of districts that Democrats might have lost on the gun safety issue. But instead, these Democrats won and they won by talking about gun safety. And I'm talking about people like Lucy McBath in Georgia whose son was killed by gun violence. Jason Carroll, a veteran in Colorado, also spoke openly about gun restrictions.
Mikey Sherrill, another veteran in New Jersey. These were the kind of seats that. Could have gone to Republicans and these were the candidates who delivered the Democrats the majority, and then by 20, 20, you saw Mark Kelly, the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was grievously injured in a mass shooting. Her husband, Mark Kelly, is now a senator from Arizona and his whole raison d'être has been promoting gun safety. This is his core issue.
And again, you know, a Democrat winning in a state that easily could have gone Republican and in fact, he ousted a Republican.
So the message would have been to Democrats.
You won control of the House back because of a handful of candidates who ran on a message and won on a message of restricting access to guns.
Right. The message was, this is an issue the Democrats you don't have to fear anymore. And at the same time, the National Rifle Association is in disarray. It's facing lawsuits. There are allegations of financial improprieties. And it's just been a big mess for this once all powerful organization that is now really back on its heels.
So Democrats are emboldened on this issue because of these victories in the House and the single biggest counterweight that they would fear the National Rifle Association is weakened.
So might this be an opportune time for Joe Biden to push through something like an assault weapons ban?
Well, you might think that, but it's complicated because Democrats do control the House. But the Senate is only 50 50 and he's going to have to get that kind of bill through the Senate. And that is going to be a huge lift. The legislation would have to overcome a filibuster. So 60 votes would be required, which requires 60 votes.
Exactly. And, you know, the votes just are not there for it in the Senate.
So he's got a decision to make. He has an ambitious agenda that he ran on of lifting the country out of recession, of bringing the coronavirus pandemic to an end, creating thousands of green new jobs, passing an infrastructure bill, expanding health care access, reforming immigration, all of these things that he wants to do that are high priorities for him. And he's got to decide whether or not he wants to take political capital away. From those issues and spend it on a gun safety bill that he knows has very little chance of passing.
So it sounds like the assault weapons ban is something that Joe Biden is not likely to try to push through Congress at the moment. Is there something short of the assault weapons ban that he could push through?
So the House has actually already passed two gun safety bills. One is a background checks act that would expand background checks on people seeking to buy firearms. That's similar to the Manchin Toomey bill that was up in 2013 and that failed in the Senate. And the other would close what is known as the gun show loophole, which is basically a loophole that allows people to buy weapons at gun shows without background checks. And those bills have both passed the House and they could be in play in the Senate.
And in fact, some senators are already talking about them.
This hearing will come to order.
Senator Dick Durbin opened the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today.
It was a week ago that I announced we will be holding a hearing on gun violence. That same day, there was a horrible string of shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, that claimed the lives of eight victims by, you know, issuing a call to action.
I could ask for a moment of silence for the mass shooting in Boulder last night. And after that is completed, I could ask for a moment of silence for the shooting in Atlanta six days ago. And after a minute, I could ask for a moment of silence for the twenty nine mass shootings that occurred this month in the United States. But in addition to a moment of silence, I would like to ask for a moment of action, a moment of real caring, a moment when we don't allow others to do what we need to do.
And Democrats on the committee specifically called for passing legislation that would expand background checks for gun purchases.
But I saw today, Cheryl, that Senator Joe Manchin, the very Democrat who sponsored that failed background check legislation with Senator Toomey in 2013, has already come out against one of the new background check bills passed in the House saying that it goes too far, which seems like an ominous sign.
Yeah, that's just one more sign that this legislation is going to be a heavy lift in a 50 50 Senate. Thank you, Cheryl. We appreciate it. Thank you, Michael. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was, quote, open to the discussion around gun safety measures, but that he opposed the two House passed bills. What I'm not attracted to, he said, is something that doesn't work. And when asked if he had the political capital to move forward with gun safety measures, President Biden expressed uncertainty.
I hope so, he said. I don't know. We'll be right back. No one tries to be unsafe online, but the truth is, every time you give up some personal info, you may be giving up a little safety, too. That's why you need Norton 360 with LifeLock to help keep your digital life safer with device security, a VPN for Wi-Fi privacy and identity theft protection all in one. No one can prevent all cybercrime or identity theft, but now everyone can opt in to cyber safety.
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This is really what you call an unforced error, because the fact is this is very likely a very good vaccine.
But in an interview with ABC News, Dr. Anthony Fauci insisted the vaccine is still considered effective.
If you look at it, the data really are quite good. But when they put it into the press release, it wasn't completely accurate.
The accusation is expected to bring extra scrutiny to the vaccine from American regulators when AstraZeneca seeks authorization to use it on an emergency basis.
Today's episode was produced by Sydney Harbour Eric Krupke and Luke Vanderhook with help from Dave Shaw.
It was edited by Lisa Tobin and Lisa Chow and engineered by Corey choreographer. That's it for the day, I'm Michael Barbaro, see tomorrow. You know, you could be listening to this podcast on the beach right now on Amelia Island. Imagine 13 miles of wide open, breathtaking coastline with tranquil sand dunes and smiles that stretch as wide as the horizon. The breeze is just a little softer. The days are a little brighter and the pace a little slower.
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