In the roughly 48 hours since yet another mass shooting, President Joe Biden has deliberately tried to stay out of the legislative and political scrum.
He’s refused to chastise Republicans explicitly for standing in the way of passing new gun laws and has given no outward indication of a type of bill he’d like to see pushed. Instead, he’s allowed Senate Democrats to set the tone of the public debate while he offers comfort to the families of victims and explores his options.
The approach has left some in the advocacy world nervous and wondering why the most powerful man in the country isn’t adequately using the bully pulpit on such an emotionally wrought issue.
“He can’t just be the ‘eulogizer in chief.’ He also needs to put the full force of his office into the legislative process. Otherwise it will seem like he’s lost hope.” said Peter Ambler, executive director for the gun safety group Giffords. “I think he can have an impact if he and the whole White House swing into action.”
White House aides and some close allies say the current posture won’t likely change soon. Publicly injecting himself into delicate gun control negotiations in the Senate could backfire, since few across Washington expect such talks to seriously advance, they argue. So could taking matters into his own hands by immediately issuing executive actions to crack down on firearms, which risks sending Republican lawmakers otherwise open to negotiating back to their respective corners, people close to the talks relayed to POLITICO.
For now, the White House is prioritizing the confirmation of Steve Dettelbach, its nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to people who’ve spoken to the White House in the days since the New York and Texas shootings. On Wednesday, Biden urged the Senate to confirm Dettelbach “without delay, without excuse” and put a permanent director atop the ATF for the first time in seven years.
And while he’s urged Congress to move on gun laws, asking why the country is willing to live with mass shootings, Biden has framed the issue as a collective responsibility, rather than one he can substantively address with the power of the executive.
“We’re continuing to look at every tool we have to stop gun violence, with new urgency from the tragic shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, including through additional executive actions,” said Mike Gwin, a White House spokesperson. “But the president knows that’s not enough when innocent lives are being taken at schools, at grocery stores, and in shootings every day in communities across our country.”
For a president whose standing with the public has eroded to new lows, and whose top priorities have been snuffed out one by one by Republicans and renegade senators in his own party, the decision to keep a calculated distance from the gun law debates carries risk.
To many gun safety activists tired of watching political foot-dragging following every horrific mass shooting, Biden’s response has felt less strategic and more like a leadership vacuum. They also question the wisdom of waiting for Congress to act — pointing to Republican intransigence and past failed attempts at bipartisanship on gun legislation — and are perplexed as to why the White House would show so much deference to Capitol Hill on guns when the president has been willing to put himself out there on other high-profile issues.
“It’s been Biden offering platitudes without offering any solutions,” said Igor Volsky, executive director of the advocacy group Guns Down America. “Who came up with this strategy? It’s just bizarre.”
Biden is no stranger to these moments. As vice president he was tasked with handling the Obama administration’s response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that resulted in the deaths of 20 6- and 7-year-olds and six adult staffers. That effort resulted in a slew of executive actions. But the legislative response was filibustered in the Senate. After the fact, Biden faced criticism for moving too slowly to propose ideas — letting the political impetus that came from the shooting dissipate in the name of fact finding and policy brainstorming.
In days following the shooting deaths of at least 31 people — including 19 children — in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, gun safety advocates who’ve spoken directly with the White House say the administration continues to collect information and evaluate steps Biden could take unilaterally.
“We need a sense of urgency and we need somebody from the White House to take charge,” said Po Murray, chair of the Newtown Action Alliance, formed after the Sandy Hook shooting. “I’m not quite sure they’re quite there yet.”
Murray’s organization has been pushing Biden to declare a national emergency over gun violence and create a federal office of gun violence prevention with a full-time director.
“How many mass shootings have we had and how many times have we asked him to make that [emergency] declaration and to establish a federal office?” she said.
All this comes amid a spate of public polls showing broad support for action. Majorities of Americans feel gun violence, mass shootings and hate crimes are a crisis or “major issue” of the moment, and nearly three-in-five want to see stronger gun laws, a new Navigator survey found.
Biden isn’t the only one under scrutiny. The decision by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to hold off on a vote on background checks risks losing momentum gathered by the collective grief of the nation. Though some operatives working on gun policy have viewed Schumer’s gambit as a sign that the space for a bipartisan deal might be there, Ambler and others worry that Republican senators will spend the next several weeks and even months debating minor points in the policies before backing away en masse.
“We have seen that playbook before. We need to put pressure on them and we need to see votes on this,” he said. “The public needs to know where they stand and the way we get there is by having a vote.”
White House officials stress that Biden is pursuing every avenue available to him and reprised a familiar rejoinder to his critics — that he’s pushed through more changes via executive action than any president over their first year in office.
They point to the dedicated team within the Domestic Policy Council working on gun safety, as well as to the more than $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan going to cities and states to combat crime. There also are their efforts to stem the flow of ghost guns, a proposed rule to tighten regulation of stabilizing braces for pistols and the Justice Department-led strike forces that are intercepting gun trafficking flows and seizing guns used in crimes.
Gwin said Biden plans to continue pressuring Congress to act, including passing universal background checks, renewing the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and by confirming Dettelbach, a career prosecutor with support from across law enforcement, to lead ATF.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed the administration was not yet ready to announce any executive actions and would defer to Congress on legislative solutions. She added that White House staff were in close contact with lawmakers.
“We leave the mechanics to Sen. Schumer,” said Jean-Pierre, referring to the majority leader’s plan to bring legislation to the floor. “We leave it to the Democratic leadership on how they’re going to move this forward.”
But Volsky said the times warrant immediate action.
“The longer you wait the less likely you are to have an outcome,” said Volsky, who finds himself in an awkward position. He began his advocacy work focused so extensively on Republican inaction — and now is increasingly venting frustrations with Democrats.
“This isn’t being framed as this is a tragedy and that we need to do what we can to honor the lives lost with immediate action. And it needs to be.”
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