Can Joe Biden break the US gun lobby?

Joe Biden has urged Americans to “stand up to the gun lobby” after 19 young children and two adults were killed in a shooting at a primary school in south Texas. 

In a speech at the White House following the attack in the city of Uvalde, the president said he was “sick and tired” of responding to mass shootings, adding: “When in God’s name will we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?

“Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with this?”

Within “hours of the shooting”, Democrats moved to force votes that would “strengthen background checks” for gun buyers, The New York Times (NYT) said, in an effort to “revive measures with broad appeal” that Republicans have blocked. But the country’s gun lobby has survived previous threats – so can Biden break the deadlock? 

Familiar tragedy

Those killed in Uvalde died after a lone gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School, which teaches children aged seven to ten. Salvador Ramos, the teenage suspect, is also believed to have shot his grandmother before the attack.

Investigators said he was armed with a handgun, an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and high-capacity magazines. Roland Gutierrez, a senator whose district includes Uvalde, said the gunman bought two “assault rifles” from a licensed dealer on his eighteenth birthday.

During the attack, Ramos “went from classroom to classroom”, The Times reported, “killing several victims” before he was “shot dead himself by a border patrol agent, who was claimed to have rushed into the school without waiting for back-up”.

His adult victims have been named as Eva Mireles, a fourth-grade teacher, and her colleague Irma Garcia.

Responding to the shooting, Biden, who was travelling back from a visit to Asia when the attack took place, said he felt powerless at the death of “beautiful, innocent” second-, third- and fourth-graders in “another massacre”.

The president, who has lost two children of his own, described how the parents in Texas “will never see their child again, never have them jump in bed and cuddle with them”, before turning to the shooting itself.

“What struck me on that 17-hour flight was these kinds of mass shootings rarely happen anywhere else in the world.

“Why? They have mental health problems. They have domestic disputes in other countries. They have people who are lost. But these kinds of mass shootings never happen with the kind of frequency that  they happen in America. Why? Why are we willing to live with this carnage?”

Republican front

Biden was elected on a pledge to “push gun safety measures and reduce the country’s tens of thousands of annual gun deaths”, Reuters said.

The president has long campaigned on the issue, leading a successful push for a ten-year ban on assault weapons in 1994 while serving as a senator. The ban was not renewed in 2004.

Since taking up residence in the Oval Office, Biden has “failed to get the votes in the Senate” needed to pass gun-control legislation, the news agency added. This despite an FBI report revealing on Monday that “active shooter” attacks have doubled since 2020.

Firearms also overtook car crashes to become the leading cause of death for US children and teenagers in 2020, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month.

Moving quickly after the shooting, Democrats tabled bills that would “expand criminal background checks to would-be gun buyers on the internet and at gun shows”, the NYT reported, as well as lengthening “the waiting period for gun buyers flagged by the instant background check system” to give the FBI longer to investigate.

The dual measures “have languished in the Senate” since 2019 “amid Republican opposition”, the paper said. And “even as they publicly mourned the massacre” in Texas, “Republican senators gave little indication that their positions had changed”.

Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican senator, accused Democrats “and a whole lot of folks in the media” of rushing to “try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens”.

Senator Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, added: “It’s one thing to say that, regardless of the facts, you should just do something. The question is whether something you would do would actually make a difference.” 

Breaking the lobby

Republican leaders have “signalled an openness to some gun restrictions after recent mass shootings”, The Texas Tribune reported. But in recent years, lawmakers in Texas “have eased gun laws, most notably by passing a permit-less carry bill last year”.

Repeatedly, legislators have been “quick to consider a crackdown on gun violence”, the paper said. But when lawmakers meet, a pattern has emerged in which they “tend to fall silent on any restrictive measures”.

“Angry Democrats” were yesterday quick to “assail” Republicans over their resistance to greater gun control, The Washington Post said. They were led by Senator Chris Murphy, “who once held a 15-hour filibuster” on the need for stricter gun laws.

Murphy, who was on Capitol Hill when a shooter killed 20 six- and seven-year-old children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his district, said he was there “to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues”. 

“Find a path forward here. Work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely.”

But the picture outside Congress is more complicated. Despite the number of mass shootings increasing, a Gallup poll conducted in 2021 found that only 52% of Americans believe gun laws should be made stricter. This was down from 67% in 2018.

The pollster found that 60% of Americans backed a ban on handguns in 1960, while only 19% said the same last year. And on assault rifles, opinion is split, with 47% of Americans saying they supported a ban on them in 2019, while 51% were against one.

There have been “over 900 shootings on school grounds” since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, which remains the deadliest school shooting in US history, The Economist said. And all the while since, “the lack of congressional action on gun control” has become its “own sorry tale”.

“Universal background checks are the most meaningful, life-saving reform”, the paper added, “but with a bitterly divided Congress, these will remain elusive”.

“While the shooting in Uvalde breaks hearts, will it change minds?”


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