Biden Fears Another Cycle of Inaction on Guns After Uvalde

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden met with Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister, in the Oval Office. It was difficult to miss the contrast: one leader from one country, who has vigorously addressed gun control following one horrific mass shooting; and another, who is still incapable of taking such actions after hundreds.

A little more than three years ago, an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle-and-shotgun-wielding white supremacist gunman killed 51 people, injured 40 others at Christchurch’s two mosques. He also live-streamed his actions on Facebook. Within a month of the massacre, Ardern led an overhaul of New Zealand’s gun laws that included banning most semi-automatic and military-style weapons and starting a buyback program that brought in 50,000 weapons. The legislation was opposed by only one New Zealand legislator.

Even a week following the Uvalde massacre, Texas schoolchildren were still in shock. This happened just 10 days after the racist shootings at a Buffalo supermarket, N.Y. (just two of many mass shootings that have occurred in America over the last year). “I want to talk to you about what those conversations were like, if you’re willing,” Biden told Ardern, who was seated next to him in one of the Oval Office’s pale yellow arm chairs.

He spoke up about his growing worry that America’s increasing numbers of mass shootings and its inaction have made it too easy for many to ignore the devastation. Biden often paraphrases an Irish poet, this time William Butler Yeats. “Too long a suffering makes a stone of the heart,” Biden said. “Well, there’s an awful lot of suffering,” he continued, adding, “much of it is preventable.”

Biden described what he experienced just two days prior, spending hours in Uvalde Texas while grieving family members waited for him to tell them about their tragedy. “The pain is palpable,” he told Ardern.

After reporters filed out of Biden’s office, the two world leaders talked for nearly an hour and a half, on the rise of China’s influence in the Pacific Rim and on trade initiatives. Biden once asked Ardern to tell him about how she rallied fellow New Zealanders into taking forceful action against assault weapons in the wake of the Christchurch shooting.

After the meeting, Ardern told reporters outside the West Wing that she “reflected on our experience with gun reform, but it is just that, it is our experience.”

American life is quite different.

Congress won’t be back in session until next week. Over the weekend, a group of five Republican and five Democratic senators met to discuss new gun restrictions. They were hoping to draw support from the Senate by at least 10 Republicans as well as all 50 Democrats. It is the best way to get the votes necessary to defeat a filibuster.

Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell asked Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the whip for the minority, to arrange some Republicans to attend the talks. Cornyn cancelled Friday’s appearance at Houston’s National Rifle Association convention. He told reporters in San Antonio on Monday that he was discussing with Democrats a “basic framework about how we go forward.” The group was scheduled to video chat on Tuesday.

There is some bipartisan interest in a few efforts to address the mass shooting epidemic, including passing a so-called red flag law that would allow courts to impose restrictions on the purchase of firearms by people believed to be a danger to themselves or others, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who is helping organize the talks, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” There has also been discussion about expanding background checks, increasing mental health resources, and putting more funds toward school safety, he said.

But Murphy tamped down expectations for Congress advancing a broad assault weapons ban or a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s gun laws. He said he hoped to put together a package of provisions that could “break the logjam” on gun control legislation. “Maybe that’s the most important thing we could do is just show that progress is possible and that the sky doesn’t fall for Republicans if they support some of these common sense measures,” Murphy said.

Democrats in control of the House have been moving ahead with several gun control measures. They hope to submit them to a vote next Wednesday. On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee will consider revising and voting out the “Protecting Our Kids Act,” a bill that could include provisions to raise the age limit for buying semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, and ban the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines.

These measures will likely face strong resistance. Legislators won’t even consider more restrictive measures like banning assault weapons such as the AR-15 (the main weapon used in the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings). Congress passed a similar ban in 1994. Joe Biden, a critical senator involved in these discussions was the last to approve it. In 2004, lawmakers let those provisions expire. American politics has become even more “dysfunctional” since then, says Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University.

“There is no reason to be hopeful at the national level now about the possibility of any gun control,” Naftali says. “The pandemic showed that issues of life and death are politicized now in a way that would have been hard to imagine 10 years ago.”

Naftali claims that the current political climate undermines America’s tradition of legislators being problem-solvers. “Right now our political class is incapable of solving major domestic challenges at the national level,” he says, leaving any possible efforts to curb access to guns to state and local leaders. This response, however, will not be as effective and broad-based as national ones.

On Tuesday, as White House aides ushered the press from Biden’s Oval Office meeting with Ardern, one reporter shouted a question to Biden about whether he would meet with McConnell about guns. “I will meet with the Congress on guns, I promise you,” Biden said. He didn’t say when.

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