Why Biden Can’t Afford to Ignore Gun Safety Advocates
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This video, while vertigo-inducing and terrifying, is what Manuel Oliver saw. necessary to create and post on the fourth anniversary of his son Joaquin’s death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Standing atop a 150-foot-tall construction crane near the White House, the whipping wind rendering some of his words inaudible, Oliver demanded on Monday that “the whole world will listen to Joaquin today. He has a very important message.”
Oliver then threw a banner with Joaquin Oliver’s face over the crane with a direct message to President Joe Biden: “45k people died from gun violence on your watch.”
That statistic is taking center stage in gun-safety advocates’ recent pivot against Biden. A new project, dubbed the Shock Market, highlights the toll of inaction on gun restrictions since Biden’s Inauguration Day, despite his having run as a candidate who would repeal liability shields for gunmakers, ban the sale of new assault weapons and end online gun sales. Fed up with inaction, dozens of protests, including the no-longer-children Parkland Kids, circled the White House and Capitol on Monday with demands for action, looking to build pressure on an administration that—at least nominally—agrees with them. And while the public events and accompanying press blitz may feel like a gimmick, it’s tough to ignore when combined with a tracking project led by Education Week that shows there were 34 school shootings last year alone, and 102 since 2018.
“Our movement over the last 20 or 30 years has really failed to create public pressure and to hold our friends accountable when they’re in power. It’s created a dynamic where Democrats running for office make all kinds of promises when they need your vote, and then once they’re elected, they turn around and they tell you that things are just too complicated politically,” says Igor Volsky, co-founder and executive director of Guns Down America, a group seeking to reduce gun ownership in the U.S. and co-launched the Shock Market campaign. “There are survivors in our movement who have been waiting for 20 or 30 years after their children and loved ones died.”
Biden ran as President because he was the most vocally supported nominee of all time for the fight against gun violence. During their fall virtual nomination convention, Democrats put guns on the forefront of the Democratic agenda. A hallmark of Biden’s messaging was his effort during Barack Obama’s Administration to comfort those killed in such violence and then marshal efforts to combat repeat incidents. He openly taunted the National Rifle Association during a primary debate in Charleston, S.C., just down the block from the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church: “I beat the NRA twice. … If I’m elected, I’m coming for you and gun manufacturers, I’m going to take you on and I’m going to beat you.”
That, put simply, hasn’t happened. Biden made it clear that guns weren’t part of his 100 Day plan. Since then, Biden’s record has been, at best, mixed. He has taken steps to curb the spread of so-called “ghost guns,” do-it-yourself weapons that are tough to track because they lack serial numbers. Biden was in New York for two weeks after the deaths of two law enforcement officers by illegal firearms. His policy papers were consistent with those he had presented back in June. Biden pushed for a regulation change that would make it easier to obtain stabilized pistols, such as the one that was used in the Boulder, Colo. shooting which left 10 people dead last March. A executive order was signed to encourage safer storage.
Biden had nominated an ex-agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to head the organization in April last year. But gun-rights groups pressed opposition and Biden ignored the fact that critics of the bureau were a non-starter among many Senators, regardless of their party. In September, he pulled his nomination for the ATF post. This alienated gun rights advocates. They believe a Senate-confirmed chief of the Bureau would be able to take on dangerous weapons. Some gun-safety activists had hoped that Biden would use this week’s Parkland anniversary to nominate a new chief, but he instead gave condolences.
“He talked about how he uniquely understands what it’s like to lose children and thus has an emotional connection to the issue. He made repeated promises, not only to survivors like Manny and Patricia Oliver, but to Americans across the country that this will be his priority,” Volsky says. “We are launching this campaign because he’s fallen short of all that.”
Fair enough, Biden has limits on what he can unilaterally do. Congress doesn’t want to address the problem. The closest Washington came to making a significant shift in gun laws was 2012 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown. Twenty children were killed and six others were injured. Unfortunately, the bipartisan attempt to improve background checks failed. Joaquin Oliver was one of the 13 students who were killed along with three others in Parkland six-years later. The lives of 17 other people were saved by the shooting.
Politicians are less adept at making political calculations about guns than they are with other special interest agendas. There is no credible evidence that anyone believes the government will take their aerosols in order to stop climate change. But guns? That paranoia is there after decades—and millions of dollars of political money—stoking fear among gun owners. (ATF didn’t help matters this week when it tweeted that people could create a memorable Valentine’s Day for an ex by reporting an illegal firearm to agents.)
Even so, Biden can’t afford to ignore the waning support of gun safety advocates. It took Charles and David Koch’s deep frustrations with spending under George W. Bush to back a Tea Party-esque challenge to the modern Republican Party. In 2018, suburban women voted for Democrats in Congress, and Biden was elected. It’s not until there are political costs to ignoring friends that things change.
And that’s what dozens of activists, who spent the four-year Parkland shooting anniversary sprinting from the White House to the Capitol pleading with lawmakers, are hoping for. The elder Oliver was forced to get down from his perch and was immediately taken into custody releasedHours later, 47,000 gun-related deaths had been recorded in the Shock Market Index. Given America’s long love affair with guns, there’s no reason to think the rate of growth will slow—unless Democrats realize that they could pay a price for inaction.
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