Washington — President Biden unveiled his first attempts to curb gun violence on Thursday, announcing a set of modest moves designed to begin revamping federal gun policy by tweaking the government's definition of a firearm and more aggressively responding to urban gun violence.
"Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it's an international embarrassment," Mr. Biden said in his remarks announcing the actions. He called high rates of gun violence a "blemish on the character of our nation."
He pushed back against arguments that these executive actions would infringe upon the right to bear arms. The changes include reviewing federal policy surrounding ghost guns — handmade or self-assembled firearms that don't include serial numbers — and the use of stabilizing braces on pistols, a modification that turns the weapon into a short-barreled rifle.
"Nothing I'm about to recommend in any way impinges upon the Second Amendment," the president said. Mr. Biden said he wants ghost gun kits "treated as firearms," and have key parts labeled with serial numbers. He also said that he wants pistols modified to be more dangerous to be subject to the National Firearms Act, meaning that owners would have to register and pay a fee for the modifications.
The president urged the Senate to pass. He also called on Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which would close the so-called "boyfriend loophole" to prevent dating partners and stalkers convicted of domestic violence or abuse from purchasing and owning firearms.
"Whether Congress acts or not, I'm going to use all of the resources at my disposal as president of the United States to protect Americans from gun violence," Mr. Biden said.
The president also called on Congress to pass an assault weapons ban. He helped shepherd a ban through Congress as a senator in 1994, but it expired in 2004. However, the measures mentioned by the president are opposed by most Republicans, meaning that they are unlikely to pass in the Senate. Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate, and Democrats have a 50-seat majority.
But Mr. Biden insists that there is "common ground" between Republicans and Democrats and noted that gun control measures are overwhelmingly popular with the American people.
"I know it's painful and frustrating that we haven't made progress that we've hoped for," Mr. Biden said. "No matter how long it takes, we're going to get these passed. We're not going to give up."
Mr. Biden on Thursday also nominated David Chipman, a former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), to lead the agency. A widely quoted expert on gun violence, Chipman in recent years has served as policy director for Giffords, the gun control organization founded by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in a 2011 assassination attempt.
If confirmed, Chipman would be the first permanent director of the agency in more than six years. Given the fraught nature of gun politics, only one ATF director has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate in the last 15 years, leaving the agency mostly run by a string of acting bosses.
The president formally announced the pick on Thursday as he unveiled other steps he's taking through executive action to address gun violence. He was joined by Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose Justice Department will be tasked with taking some of its most aggressive steps on gun policy in more than a decade.
Advocates for gun control are pushing the president to classify ghost guns as traditional firearms, a move that would require anyone who buys them to undergo a federal background check. On Thursday, Mr. Biden gave the Justice Department 30 days to issue potential changes in federal rules "to help stop the proliferation" of the weapons, according to the White House.
Given the handmade nature of the weapons, ghost guns often cannot be traced by law enforcement because serial numbers are not required.
The Justice Department is also being given 60 days to issue a proposed rule regarding stabilizing braces. Attaching such a brace to a pistol makes the firearm more stable and in essence transforms it into a short-barreled rifle subject to regulation by federal law. The White House noted that the alleged shooter in the March supermarket shooting in Boulder, Colorado,.
The Justice Department was also asked to draft model legislation to enact "red flag" laws at the state level. For years, lawmakers in both parties have been pushing for federal and state legislation that would temporarily bar people facing mental anguish or other personal crises from accessing firearms if law enforcement or a judge determine they present a danger to themselves or others.
"I am under no illusions about how hard it is to solve the problems of gun violence, and I know the Justice Department alone cannot solve the problem," Garland said in brief remarks. "But there is work for the department to do, and we intend to do it."
To curb the uptick in homicides nationwide, the Biden administration is also asking five federal agencies to adapt more than two dozen government programs to help buoy community violence intervention programs nationwide. The White House noted that the president's American Jobs Plan proposes spending $5 billion over eight years to support state and city-based violence intervention programs.
The new plans earned swift support from national gun control organizations Wednesday night.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement that the moves "will start to address the epidemic of gun violence that has raged throughout the pandemic, and begin to make good on President Biden's promise to be the strongest gun safety president in history." He added later that the decision to target ghost guns and "treat them like the deadly weapons they are will undoubtedly save countless lives - as will the critical funding provided to groups that focus on city gun violence."
Kris Brown, president of the gun control advocacy organization Brady, said in a statement that Mr. Biden's actions "will have immediate impact."
"President Biden's actions are historic and they will have an immediate impact. These are tangible and powerful policies that will save lives," Brown said.
Organizations pushing for stricter gun laws and Democratic lawmakers have been pushing for years for the federal government to reclassify ghost guns and force purchasers to undergo background checks.
"Ghost guns are guns, too. And it's time to close the loophole," Democratic Congressman Adriano Espaillat, who's pushed for legislation to regulate ghost guns, tweeted Wednesday.
The NRA, meanwhile, immediately pushed back on the plans. The organization tweeted Wednesday night that the actions were "extreme" and wrote "the NRA is ready to fight."
"These actions could require law-abiding citizens to surrender lawful property, and push states to expand gun confiscation orders," the NRA tweeted.
Meanwhile, Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who co-sponsored background check legislation that failed to pass in Congress in 2013, said in a statement that he and his staff are "reviewing" Mr. Biden's actions.
"I appreciate President Biden's expressed willingness to work with both Republicans and Democrats to achieve this goal. If done in a manner that respects the rights of law-abiding citizens, I believe there is an opportunity to strengthen our background check system so that we are better able to keep guns away from those who have no legal right to them," Toomey said.
It is unclear, however, how much progress gun control reforms can happen in Congress.
"It will take time. This will not be easy. But we have to take action," White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told CBSN Thursday after the president spoke. "And in Congress, there are two pieces of legislation that went out of, that passed the House, bipartisan. In a bipartisan way. And so now it's time to move those as well and to get that into the Senate, and for the Senate to move those piece of legislation. And the president is going to work very hard as he has committed, as he has said, to make sure that happens."
Growing in popularity but difficult to track broadly given the lack of a serial number, ghost guns have been used in multiple shooting-related crimes in recent years.
The Biden administration has been reluctant to publicly discuss gun control amid its initial focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic downturn. During his first formal news conference last month, the president signaled he would not be rushed to address the issue despite recent mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado and that his administration would remain focused primarily on pushing legislative responses to the pandemic and his multi-trillion dollar infrastructure plan.
His decision has allowed critics to highlight how Mr. Biden came up short on fulfilling a notable campaign pledge. Appearing in Nevada in February 2020, Mr. Biden vowed to send legislation to Congress on his first day in office that would repeal the liability protection for gun manufactures and closing loopholes in the federal gun background check system.
For weeks, administration aides have said plans were still in the works — a posture that didn't change in the wake of those recent shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado.
Corey Rangel, Nancy Cordes, Kristin Brown and Fin Gomez contributed to this report.