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White House mulls executive action on gun control as legislation stalls in Senate

White House taking action on gun violence
White House taking action on gun violence 06:59

The White House is considering executive action to address gun violence in the wake of two mass shootings that rocked the country over the past several days. President Biden has urged Congress to take action quickly and address gun control bills passed in the House, but this legislation has foundered in the evenly divided Senate.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told CBS News during a press conference on Wednesday that there are "current discussions" in the White House about taking executive action on gun control.

"Executive actions are of course an important lever that every president has at their disposal. There is current discussions and analysis internally of what steps can be taken. That has been ongoing for several weeks, even before these two recent tragedies," Psaki said, adding that the president was "not waiting for anything to fail." Psaki did not specifically describe what the executive actions could entail, but said that the administration would want to address access to firearms as well as "community violence."

A total of 18 people have died in the two mass shootings that were just days apart, in Atlanta and Boulder. Ten people were killed in a shooting at a supermarket on Monday, just six days after eight, six of them of Asian descent, people were killed in three shootings at spas in the Atlanta area. 

The president has a few options for executive orders, such as closing the loophole that allows unlicensed gun dealers to sell a weapon without performing a background check, or barring sale of partially assembled gun making kits to convicted criminals and abusers.

"There isn't a corner of the Biden administration or the Justice Department that couldn't be doing something right now to address the gun violence crisis in this country," Shannon Watts, the founder of gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action, told CBS News in an interview.

Mr. Biden on Tuesday called on Senate to "immediately" vote on the two House-passed bills. One would establish background check requirements for gun sales between private parties, prohibiting transfers unless a licensed gun dealer, manufacturer or importer first takes possession of the firearm to conduct a background check. The other would close the so-called "Charleston loophole," which allows some gun sales to go through before background checks are completed.

"This is not and should not be a partisan issue. This is an American issue," Mr. Biden said Tuesday.

The president also called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. As a senator, Mr. Biden was an architect of the nationwide ban on those weapons enacted in 1994, but it expired in 2004. Multiple attempts to revive the ban have failed.

Despite Mr. Biden's pleas, the Senate may not take action on the two House-passed bills. Democrats have a 50-seat majority in the Senate, and the measures are unlikely to gain support from 10 Republicans to receive the requisite 60-vote threshold to advance.

"The idea of banning assault weapons I don't think it has any chance of passing in the Senate and I would encourage Senator Schumer to bring up the assault weapons ban being proposed by President Biden and let us vote on it," GOP Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters on Wednesday, referring to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. He also argued Democrats wanted to use mass shootings as a pretext to confiscate guns.

"Most Republicans are pretty much tired of this, that every time there's a tragedy that is yet another reason to say that white extremism is the biggest threat to the country, and that we need to gather up everybody's guns," Graham said.

The partisan divide on gun control was also on display during a Senate hearing on gun violence on Tuesday. Senator Ted Cruz called the hearing "ridiculous theater" and insisted that gun control proposals from Democrats are "a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday morning that he would be "happy to debate" the bills if Schumer brings them to the floor, but argued the Senate's focus "ought to be on identifying people in advance who have the capacity and the interest in carrying out these attacks."

The bills have also brooked opposition from Senator Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Manchin noted he comes "from a gun culture" and is a "law abiding gun owner."

"I don't support the bill the House passed. Not at all," Manchin said. Manchin and Republican Senator Pat Toomey introduced a bill in the wake of the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, that would have closed legal loopholes that allow people who purchase firearms at gun shows or on the internet to avoid background checks. However, the bill was unable to garner sufficient support at the time.

"I'm still basically where Pat Toomey and I have been: the most reasonable responsible gun piece of legislation called Gun Sense which is basically saying commercial transactions should be a background checked. Commercial, you don't know a person. If I know a person, no," Manchin said.

The White House appears to acknowledge that gun control legislation is a long shot in Congress. Vice President Kamala Harris said in an interview with "CBS This Morning" on Wednesday morning that "Congress needs to act," but also indicated the White House would consider taking executive action if the Senate does not press forward with these bills.

"I don't think the president is excluding that. But again, I want to be clear that if we really want something that is going to be lasting, we need to pass legislation," Harris said.

Nancy Cordes contributed to this report.

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