Joe Biden's sketchy past on gun control resurfaces as he wants fast laws in effect after Boulder shooting
The president, who had championed a gun control legislation in 1994, was once a conservative pro-gun Democrat who even got positive ratings from the National Rifle Association
President Joe Biden on Tuesday, March 23, called on the Congress to “immediately pass” legislation to close loopholes in gun background checks and ban assault weapons in his first public remarks delivered after the mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado, on Monday, March 22, in which 10 were killed. A mentally-ill youth called Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa was identified to be the assassin who opened fire at a King Soopers grocery store.
Speaking from the White House Dining Room, Biden said: “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save the lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act.” The Democrat said he and First Lady Jill Biden were “devastated” by the shooting and added that he couldn’t imagine how the affected families were feeling. He then said in his speech that lasted for around six minutes that as the president, he will use all resources at his disposal to keep Americans safe.
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Monday’s shooting was the second one the US witnessed in a week, following the attacks at three parlors in Atlanta that killed eight people. The events have reignited the debate over gun control and put pressure on President Biden who is already facing challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the rising number of migrants at the southern border.
The House passed two bills earlier this month to tighten gun sales norms and Biden urged the divided Senate to pass both of them urgently. While H.R.8 speaks about expansion of background checks on individuals seeking to buy or transfer firearms, the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2001 eyes to shut the “Charleston loophole”, a gap in the federal laws that allows gun sales to take place without completed background checks after three business days get over. Biden said gun control should not be a partisan issue but an American issue that will save lives.
But what has historically been Biden’s stance on the issue of gun violence in the US?
Biden on Tuesday recalled a law that he had helped in passing as a senator from Delaware in 1994 that put a ban on manufacturing of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines for civilian use. The law phased out after a decade though California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Rhode Island Democratic Representative David Cicilline sponsored a new bill -- Assault Weapons Ban -- to revive the ban.
Biden distanced himself from 1994 bill that he once championed
Biden had been trying to pass legislation to curb the rise in violence since the late 1980s and by 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, commonly referred to as the 1994 Crime Bill or the Clinton Crime Bill or Biden Crime Law, passed the Congress and was signed by then president Bill Clinton. Today, that bill is often criticized for causing more mass incarceration and aggressive policing and in the run-up to the presidential election last year, the veteran Democrat was even found distancing himself from the bill saying questions raised about his support for the 1994 bill were “legitimate” and that people should judge him based on his current actions, not the past ones. “Forged over more than six years of contentious debate in the Senate, the bill increased sentences for those convicted of nonviolent crimes and ramped up funding to build more prisons. It also boosted spending for community programs and drug rehab centers and enacted tougher domestic abuse rules, but those provisions are still broadly popular,” a report in The Trace said last October.
Biden then was successful in preserving the assault weapon ban despite the Republicans’ efforts to strip it, along with other gun provisions, including raised penalties for illegal possession of guns. The former senator’s attempts to reform the gun culture was something new then because as late as 1986, his voting records showed that he was more pro-gun than anti-gun. The then conservative mind when it came to guns later shifted to proposing an expansive gun reform agenda as a presidential candidate, looking to reinstate the assault weapons ban and expand background checks and even launch a national gun buyback program.
As senator, Biden got positive ratings from NRA
During Biden’s early days in the Senate, where he served for more than three decades, he got positive ratings from none other than the National Rifle Association (NRA). Even The Delaware Morning News had reported once that Biden told his prospective staffers that they should not avoid liberal devotion to the issue of controlling guns. In 1986, Biden voted for the Firearms Owners Protection Act (FOPA), a legislation to save gun rights that was drafted by the NRA. The FOPA, which was passed in the Congress overwhelmingly, had overturned as many as six Supreme Court rulings and several other regulations and proved to be one of the most consequential gun laws in the US in the 20th century. The FOPA allowed mail (and later online) sales of guns and ammo, reserved strict federal licensing norms for gun dealers and even hampered the enforcement ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In 2020, as a Democratic presidential candidate, Biden was touting how successfully he took on the NRA during his long political career.
The Trace report said: “...the passage of FOPA, with Biden’s support, went down as one of the first major gun rights victories for an NRA that was already on the path to becoming more partisan, more politicized, and less willing to compromise on gun legislation as it had in 1968.”
In 1985, Biden believed little in gun control
In 1985, Biden made evident that he was little convinced about the need for gun control. On the floor of the Senate, the then Delaware lawmaker said that year: “During my twelve-and-half years as a member of this body, I have never believed that additional gun control or federal registration of guns would reduce crime. I am convinced that a criminal who wants a firearm can get one through illegal, untraceable, unregistered sources, with or without gun control.”
But less than a decade since that stance, Biden was busy drafting the crime bill to ban assault weapons. It was then when the politician started transforming himself from one of the Senate’s most pro-gun conservative Democrats into one who vowed for gun law reforms.
According to experts, the reality had started shifting by then. Robert Spitzer, a historian at the State University of New York, said the growing violence in the late 1980s using assault weapons and the assassination attempt on then president Ronald Reagan and his aide James Brady in 1981 and a shooting at a school in Stockton, California, in 1989 boosted efforts to the gun-control movement. According to Spitzer, those incidents “catalyzed the movement to try and enact a nationwide ban on assault weapons”.
But did the Democrats give up on the gun control issue in the subsequent years? According to Spitzer, the blue party backed away from the gun issue after the 2000 presidential elections because it believed that it cost its candidate Al Gore the election that year which though he feels is not correct. “There was this belief among Democrats, and so they just decided to back burner that issue. That really left an open field for the NRA and for Bush,” he told The Trace.
Jim Manley, a former staffer to former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, feels the Democrats stopped focusing on stronger gun laws after the 1994 midterm elections because they started to think that they lost the elections because of the assault weapons ban.
Biden could not do much on gun violence in Obama years
The efforts renewed in the recent years, particularly after the Barack Obama administration witnessed some serious gun crimes that brought tears to even the president’s eyes. Biden, who was the vice president to Obama, was heavily involved in the administration’s efforts to control gun crime, especially after the tragedy in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012 in which many children were massacred. Obama even turned to Biden to give leadership for new gun laws following the massacre, provided the long track record the former veep had in the field of gun violence. “As the president knows, I've worked in this field a long time in the United States Senate,” Biden said at the time.
But the Obama administration was unable to find a solution to the problem, despite having the veteran Biden. The Democrats on Capitol Hill would aim to revive the gun control issue after almost every instance of mass shooting in the country but their efforts have not been successful, thanks to the powerful NRA. As Alan Friedman writes in his book ‘Democracy in Peril’: “Each time new legislation was tabled, the National Rifle Association managed to intimidate, cajole, and threaten into submission the requisite number of members of Congress needed to block the legislation. So far, every major attempt has failed…”
The Obama administration’s failure in doing something substantial to curb gun violence despite serving in the office for eight years shows how tough the battle is right now. Biden, a centrist and establishment Democrat, is nearly as aligned with an average Democratic voter but the changed circumstances in America’s political and social life may make him look like one with inconsistent stands.