WASHINGTON, Jan 27 (Reuters) – Flags were lowered again in a statement of grief and a plea to lawmakers.
In the wake of two mass shootings in California this week, President Joe Biden expressed heartfelt and familiar outrage and grief over gun violence in America and renewed his call on Congress to pass legislation banning assault weapons.
Political experts say such a ban is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House or the narrowly Democratic-controlled Senate.
But Biden’s dogged strategy continued: Whenever there was a mass shooting, making the ban a focus of public discourse and putting pressure on opponents. The White House hopes to finally try to force Republicans in Congress to change their minds, building on the already strong public support for stricter gun safety laws.
A White House official said Biden had personally mentioned the assault weapons ban in his planned public remarks.
This week, after 18 people were killed in two days in California, the president asked lawmakers to get the bill to his desk as quickly as possible.
“It’s really, really needed,” he told Democratic leaders at a meeting Tuesday. “We’re going to ban assault weapons again,” he said Thursday at a Lunar New Year reception at the White House, to applause.
The Republican opposition has not changed.
Sen. John Cornyn, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has been prominent in past gun control debates, said the California shooting had not changed the dynamics on Capitol Hill. “There won’t be any further legislative action there. We pretty much exhausted all possibilities a few months ago,” he told Reuters.
The White House said Biden would not give up.
“The president’s strategy is to make assault weapons ban a successful issue so we can build a pro-gun safety Congress, and we’re making progress on that,” another White House official said.
Biden’s strategy could have longer-term political benefits ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
“I do suspect that part of Biden’s re-election plan next year is to try to contrast himself as a moderate, centrist, pragmatic figure with extreme figures,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Simple math, not enough support
A decade after 20 first graders and six adults were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the U.S. federal government has few limits on weapons like the high-capacity AR-15 or an estimated 400 million guns used in the attack domestic. Investigators said more than 150 rounds were fired at the school in just five minutes.
The recent shooting in California that left 18 dead shows how even the strictest state laws can be ineffective due to a patchwork of federal regulations.
Biden has opposed assault weapons for years and repeatedly during his presidency. He was instrumental in passing the decade-long ban in 1994.
As vice president, he spearheaded a series of gun control proposals for Barack Obama after Sandy Hook, including a proposal for a new assault weapons ban. Neither passed in Congress due to opposition from Republicans and the then-powerful NRA lobby.
Last year, however, Biden signed the first major federal gun reform bill in three decades. It cracked down on the sale of guns to domestic violence offenders and expanded some background checks to teens.
There is strong public support for these even tougher measures.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans support raising the age at which a person can buy a gun to 21, and 92 percent support background checks for all gun buyers, according to a June poll by Quinnipiac University.
Yet Quinnipiac and other polls show that only about half of Americans support an assault weapons ban.
To pass a bill, the president needs 60 votes in the Senate — nine Republicans and all 51 Democrats and independents — and a simple majority of 218 votes in the House, which has 222 Republicans and a Republican speaker, they must agree to introduce a bill for everyone to vote on.
The law in June had the support of 14 Republicans in the House and 15 Republicans in the Senate after mass shootings in Texas and New York killed more than 30 people, including 19 children at an elementary school.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to bear arms, an issue that is a hot-button issue for many Republicans and backed by millions in donations from gun rights groups and manufacturers.
“Violent crime is on the rise and people are desperate for solutions. But rather than setting obvious lines — like actually punishing criminals or addressing our woefully inadequate mental health system — the president is trying to revive an initiative that had zero impact on violence .Violent crime,” said NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide.
The White House pointed to statistics including by University of Massachusetts researcher Louis Klarevas showing a 37 percent reduction in gun massacres and a 43 percent drop in gun massacre deaths during the 10-year period of the assault rifle ban compared with the previous decade.
While a blanket ban on assault weapons seems unlikely, the narrow Republican majority in the House means more moderate things are possible, such as raising the age to buy assault weapons to 21, said Scala of the University of New Hampshire.
Even if Congress does nothing within two years, from executive action to budget to enforcement of existing laws, the White House has other options to reduce gun violence, advocates say.
Biden’s team said they understand the political possibilities.
“Our job is to keep trying. The president is going to keep using the bullying pulpit, keep taking executive action, keep building on the legislation he completed last summer, and keep going,” a second White House official said.
(This story has been refiled to say that the 60 votes needed in the Senate would mean 9 Republicans and all 51 Democrats and Independents, not the 10 Republicans and all 50 Democrats in paragraph 22 Partisans and Independents.)
Reporting by Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan; Editing by Heather Timmons and Nick Zieminski
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