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The White House is facing mounting pressure to unveil a comprehensive plan to reduce gun violence, an issue that the new administration has not yet publicly tackled despite promises from President Joe Biden to make it a policy priority.
Gun control advocates acknowledge the president’s short tenure in office and the ongoing public health and economic crises, but say Biden must take action soon amid what they see as a worsening crisis of gun deaths in the country.
“I am hopeful this administration is going to get on with prioritizing gun violence, but it’s time to start,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose teenage daughter was murdered by a gunman in 2018, during a mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Guttenberg, who became a gun control advocate after his daughter’s death, said the upcoming anniversary of the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14 should add urgency for the administration to move forward on a broad plan that includes a legislative push and executive orders aimed at restricting access to firearms.
“This would be a really good moment to show Americans we’re going to do everything we can to not have another moment like that,” said Guttenberg, who developed a relationship with Biden after the Parkland tragedy and became a vocal supporter of his campaign.
Guttenberg acknowledged there was some “frustration” within the community of gun-control advocates at the lack of attention, even as he remained confident the president would ultimately take action.
The White House is engaged in a broad range of pressing issues, from negotiating a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill through Congress to reversing many of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. The president, who took office less than three weeks ago, has also attempted to accelerate the distribution of coronavirus vaccines while responding to last month’s violent insurrection at the Capitol.
Democrats who support gun-control measures say that with the party in control of the White House and Congress, they must capitalize on the opportunity to act despite the other challenges
“This is not going away,” said Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, vice chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force in Congress. “I would just say to any elected official that you ignore this issue at your peril. You have to make sure you’re addressing this because the tide turned a long time ago.”
Crow and some gun-control activists say they are confident that Biden will soon turn to the issue, citing his successful effort to ban assault weapons as a senator in 1994 and campaign pledges to take a host of actions if elected.
Others in the community, however, are less patient. A collection of more than 300 people personally affected by gun violence, including Guttenberg, wrote a letter to Biden last week asking that he prioritize the issue, saying he must grapple with the rise of gun violence in the same way he has stressed the need to take on climate change and systemic racism.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the president is “personally committed” but declined to put a timetable on when the White House would unveil its proposal.
“He would love to see action on additional gun safety measures to protect families and children and knows there’s support across the American public for that,” she said.
During the campaign, Biden pledged to expand background checks, ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and end the online sale of firearms, among other measures.
But those plans have been conspicuously absent from many of the new administration’s early proposals. When White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain issued a memo days before Biden’s inauguration broadly outlining the challenges facing the White House, he cited issues like climate change and racial equity but did not mention guns or gun violence.
The president also hasn’t issued any executive orders related to guns since taking office even amid a flurry of other actions.
Gun-control advocates say, however, that they have been meeting privately with White House officials. A White House official confirmed that staff had met with Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence since the inauguration, though they declined to name which White House officials were part of the conversations and when they took place.
And some advocates acknowledge that even if they see gun violence as a pressing issue, the White House must focus its efforts in the short run elsewhere.
“I understand as an American, as a professional, as an advocate that COVID comes first,” said Peter Ambler, Giffords’ executive director. “If we can’t get this right as a country, as a party, we’re not going to be around to do all the other things we want to do.”
Gun control remains a politically sensitive subject. To Republicans, a push to tighten firearm restrictions could galvanize a party currently engulfed with infighting and reactivate a conservative base depressed by former President Donald Trump’s defeat.
But Democrats point out that many of the individual measures they are discussing, like expanding background checks, receive overwhelming support from the public, according to polls. And they say the party, which during Trump’s presidency gained support from suburban votes more open to restricting firearm access, is more unified on the issue than in past years.
“I am confident of the values and the priorities of this administration,” Ambler said. “And there is a governing agenda on gun safety and this administration gets it. This congress gets it. And we’re looking forward to partnering with them to get that implemented.”
Guttenberg said he’s hopeful action will come soon.
“It is time for them to publicly engage this country in a conversation on the importance of this issue, to instruct the Cabinet to start taking any steps they can to deal with this issue as a public health emergency,” Guttenberg said.