Biden Unveils 7-Point Agenda for Gun Control

Human Rights

Vice-President Joe Biden's first detailed remarks about the package of gun control reforms he intends to present next Tuesday to President Obama are solid first steps.

Speaking Thursday in Washington in between meetings with various gun control constituencies -- from pro-control victims groups and public health physicians on one side to the NRA on the other side -- Biden laid out seven proposals that would more or less reset the federal clock on gun control laws to where it was in 1985, a year before Congress started loosening decades of laws under the Reagan administration and NRA lobbying. Biden repeatedly earned an F rating from the NRA during his tenure in the Senate. 

Here are the seven agenda items, which Biden said had near-unanimous support from gun control groups.

1) Close the so-called gun show loophole. In 1986, Congress passed a law allowing people to buy a firearm at one of the thousands of gun shows held each year across the country. These sales require no licensing of the gun buyer, no background checks, no waiting periods before getting the gun, no reporting sales to local or federal authorities. Today, 40 percent of gun sales annually across the county occur at gun shows, and by some estimates 80 percent of weapons used in crimes are bought at gun shows.

“There is a surprising—so far—a surprising recurrence of suggestions that we have universal background checks, not just close the gun show loophole but totally universal background checks including private sales,” Biden said.

2) Universal background checks for gun buyers; and 3) improve background check database. These two proposals are connected and face significant political, technical and legal hurdles. Congress has barred certain groups of people from owning guns for decades, starting with felons in 1934. In 1968, Congress expanded that list to include the mentally ill and drug addicts. In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Bill—named after Ronald Reagan’s press secretary who was shot—which instituted a federal system of background checks for gun buyers, and extended the waiting period to five days before buyers could get their guns.

The background check system has been in shambles for years, as AlterNet has reported, with three-quarters of the states choosing not to share court information about felons and the mentally ill with federal authorities, and the Supreme Court ruling in 1997 that states didn’t have to comply with the reporting requirement.

Even though Congress passed a 2007 law creating federally administered grants to states to overcome technical hurdles with sending information to the Justice Department (some states submit information electronically; others infrequently mail a CD) only a dozen states account for most of the data six years after that became law. Biden complained about this non-compliance Thursday. However, the solution doesn’t appear to be a quick fix if past is precedent.

“It doesn’t do a lot of good when in some states they have a backlog of 40, 50, 60,000 felons that they never registered here,” Biden said. “So we have got to talk about, there is a lot of talk about how we entice, or what is the impediment keeping states from relaying this information.”

4) Limit high-capacity bullet magazines. Every recent mass shooting has had high death rates because the shooters had guns that not only automatically reloaded and kept firing, but were fed a big supply of bullets. Biden said there was near-unanimous support among gun control advocates to regulate higher-capacity magazines.

“I have never quite heard as much talk about the need to do something about high-capacity magazines as I have heard spontaneously from every group I have met with so far,” the vice-president said.

It is notable that in 1934, when Congress passed the first federal gun-control law, one of the key focuses was taking machine guns out of circulation, because they were used by gangsters for some of the worst mass killings. Congress did that by severely taxing those guns, making them unaffordable. Ironically, modern automatic weapons fed by high-capacity bullet clips are as deadly.   
5) Allow federal research on gun violence; and 6) remove gag orders on federal agencies that collect gun data. Like the background check hurdles, these two proposals are intertwined. Starting in 1996, Republicans in Congress started doing the NRA a big favor by placing restrictions on key federal agencies’ ability to conduct research on gun-related violence. Those restrictions did not apply to car accidents, in contrast. Similarly, in 2003, Congress barred the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from sharing data in its records that traced gun sales.

Politically, the NRA was being very shrewd. It wanted to steer the public information and debate about gun controls away from the effects of gun violence to the terrain of constitutional freedom. By suppressing the public health science and data sources, it could attack its critics as being shrill and uninformed.   

"So there was a real effort to deny the government just gathering the information,” Biden said. “As you know there are restrictions now on any agency in the government just gathering the information about what kind of weapons are used most to kill people. How many weapons used are trafficked weapons? Are weapons used in gang warfare in our major cities—are they legally purchased or are they purchased through strawmen? We don’t have that information. And the irony is we are prohibited under laws and appropriations bills from acquiring it.”

But Biden’s remarks about restoring the federal government’s research capacity were curious. He seemed to steer away from the NRA and instead target a much weaker industry, in terms of its political clout: video gamemakers.

“The last area… has to do with the ability of any agency to do any research on the issue of gun violence,” he said. “For example, we’re meeting before the week is out with the gaming industry—I don’t mean gambling—with the video game industry.”

7) Target purveyors of violence as a cultural norm. Biden’s most intriguing remarks came after he mentioned video games—which the NRA blamed for inciting violence in its infamous press conference after the Newtown shooting when it proposed arming America’s public school teachers.  

Biden recalled working on a crime bill in the 1980s with New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said that Americans have been subjected to years of increasing violence and have come to accept deviant behavior as normal.

“He used the example of the assassination of a mob boss in 1936… making the front page of every paper in America,” Biden said. “And then he stood on the Senate floor and he held up the New York Times and on page 54, he picked it up, at the very back of the paper, where an entire family, including grandmother, mother, father, children, were basically assassinated in their apartment, thinking it may have been about a drug deal, and it made page 54. And he said, ‘We’ve defined deviancy down.’”

Biden is indeed correct that there are many cultural forces and factors that send messages that using guns and violence to settle disputes is acceptable. Anyone who has sat through the latest coming attractions at a movie theater sees many variations on the vigilante and revenge motif.

But what was noticeably absent from this part of Biden’s remarks were how the NRA has been encouraging people for decades to mistrust government and look to armed insurrection, if necessary, as a Second Amendment fantasy, with violent results. Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ would-be assassin, Jared Lee Loughner, was obsessed with the NRA’s "by-any-means-necessary" view of the Constitution and use of arms, according to many media accounts.          

Biden made his remarks before meeting with the NRA’s representatives on Thursday. He will present his slate of gun-control recommendations to President Obama early next week. But the seven proposals he reeled off in remarks to the media would essentially reset some of the nation’s gun control laws to where they were in the mid-1980s.

What else could he propose? There have been no shortage of suggestions, such as: a national registry of gun owners; national licensing requirement to buy guns; mandatory registration of gun sales—including transfer titles like used cars; new rules on what ammunition can and cannot be sold; new bans on sales of guns or weapons used by the police and military; stiffer penalties for failing to meet these and other gun laws; limits on the number of guns that can be bought at one time; repealing many of the bad laws sponsored by the NRA since the 1980s.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This American Prospectpiece by David Kairys goes into even greater detail about what gun laws cannot just become law, but would be effective. Kairys, a law professor at Temple University, notes that the NRA has been employing a very cynical strategy for years: “proposing or supporting meaningless or gutted laws, then publically arguing that all we need is to enforce them.”

He concludes, “It’s time for our political leaders to pay attention and act with conviction and courage.”

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