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Joe Biden’s Gun Control Orders Show the Limits of Executive Action

Back-to-back mass shootings last month in Georgia and Colorado prompted a familiar call to reform America’s gun laws: “We have to act,” President Joe Biden said after 10 people were killed at a Boulder grocery store. But Americans have seen this play out too many times to get their hopes up: Gun control would once again be a non-starter for Republicans, and the latest tragedy would bring about only the most limited federal reforms, if any at all.

Biden, the optimist that he is, seems determined not to let it go, continuing to push Congress to act and issuing a series of orders in the meantime. But the executive actions, announced Thursday, only reinforce the need for more substantial legislation on Capitol Hill. “We’ve got a long way to go,” the president said in a Rose Garden address Thursday. “It seems like we always have a long way to go.”

Flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Attorney General Merrick Garland, Biden announced six executive actions—fulfilling a promise to move on gun reform, even if Congress didn’t. Under the president’s orders, the Department of Justice will propose restrictions on gun kits and stability braces capable of turning “a pistol into a short-barreled rifle,” and will issue guidance for state “red flag” laws to temporarily bar individuals who may pose a threat to themselves or others from accessing firearms. He also ordered the DOJ to issue an annual gun trafficking report. Perhaps Biden’s two most concrete actions: Investments in community violence interventions, and the nomination of David Chipman, senior policy adviser to former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ gun reform organization, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which has not had a Senate-confirmed director since 2015.

“David has spent his career serving the public, combating violent crime, and striving to make our nation and our communities safer,” Giffords, who was severely wounded in an attempted assassination in 2011, said in a statement. “As a responsible gun owner, decorated law enforcement professional, and gun safety expert, David is the perfect choice for ATF director.”

Those actions signal that the Biden administration views reforming gun laws as a priority. But they are also extremely modest, and do not even come close to the kind of change that’s needed, as Biden himself acknowledged Thursday. “This is just a start,” he said. There are limits to what he can do on his own, and he has made clear that he wants Congress to do its part. “This is not a partisan issue among the American people,” he said, calling for the Senate to pass House bills that would close loopholes and expand background checks. “I’m willing to work with anyone to get these done.”

But it’s unclear how many partners he’ll find in the upper chamber. Republicans don’t seem to be budging, with Ted Cruz calling the latest push for reform “theater.” Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, invented a theatrical scenario of his own in which he needed an AR-15 to defend his house against a post-apocalyptic “gang”—and suggested Biden wanted to snatch every gun from Americans’ cold, dead hands. It’s exceedingly unlikely Democrats will get the 10 GOP votes they need to pass the House bills. Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin is no more keen on those gun reforms than he is on eliminating the filibuster anyway, and has said he wants to work with Republican Pat Toomey to get their more modest gun control measures through. But the duo failed to get their compromise plan through eight years ago, in the wake of Sandy Hook, and it’s not clear they’ll have any more success now.

Biden is continuing to make his case, including by trying to get his opponents to be a little less precious about the Second Amendment. “No amendment to the constitution is absolute,” he said Thursday. “From the beginning, you couldn’t own any weapon you wanted to own.” But the fact that the average American can’t keep a tank in their driveway or a ballistic missile in their basement seems unlikely to persuade the people he needs to persuade to get things done. Absent a major sea change, the hope is that Biden will be able to make progress on the issue incrementally. But if Thursday’s orders are any indication, that progress could prove frustratingly slow.

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