President Joe Biden will establish the first-ever federal office committed to gun violence prevention, the administration’s latest effort to combat a violent American epidemic as the rates of mass shootings eclipse the number of days in a year.
The president has repeatedly stressed that he has tested the limits of his executive authority on gun reform, but a first-of-its-kind office under Vice President Kamala Harris will be tasked with expanding efforts to combat the proliferation of high-powered weapons and stem the tide of gun violence ripping the nation apart, including support for mass shooting survivors and communities acutely impacted by gun violence.
He has made dozens of unanswered pleas to members of Congress to “do something,” including enacting universal background checks for firearm purchases and reinstating a federal ban on military-style rifles that have become the weapon of choice for mass shooters in recent years. Since the beginning of the Biden administration, there have been more than 1,800 mass shootings.
The new White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention and the rest of his administration will “continue to do everything it can” in the “absence of that sorely needed action,” he said in a statement on 21 September.
Gun violence remains the leading cause of death among children. At least 220 children younger than 11 years old and more than 1,000 children between ages 12 and 17 have died from guns so far this year.
Between 2019 and 2020, the relative increase of firearm-related deaths among children – including homicide, suicide and unintentional shootings – was 29.5 per cent, more than twice as high as the increase among the general population. That spike reflects 4,368 Americans under the age of 19 who died from gun violence in 2020.
More than 31,000 Americans have died from gun violence in 2023 alone, including more than 17,000 people who died by suicide, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
There have been more than 500 mass shootings this year – including seven within the last week alone – and more than 30 acts of mass murder that have left at least 171 people dead, putting the nation on a faster pace for such massacres than any other year in roughly two decades.
The “epidemic of gun violence requires urgent leadership to end the fear and trauma that Americans experience every day,” Ms Harris said in a statement.
The office she will oversee “will play a critical role” in implementing the administration’s efforts alongside members of Congress, state and local officials and advocacy groups,” she said.
“Our promise to the American people is this: we will not stop working to end the epidemic of gun violence in every community, because we do not have a moment, nor a life to spare,” she added.
‘Turbo-charging’ gun reform and mental health support
White House staff secretary Stefanie Feldman will serve as the office director, with Greg Jackson, the executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, and Everytown for Gun Safety’s Rob Wilcox joining as deputy directors.
The office will be “turbo-charging implementation” of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the president’s other executive actions on gun reform, and determine other actions that the White House can take within the president’s authority, according to a senior administration official.
The office also will offer more support to communities impacted by gun violence, an effort that a senior administration official compared to the way FEMA is deployed to areas in the aftermath of other disasters. President Biden has repeatedly indicated after mass acts of violence that the federal government should be doing more for communities impacted by mass shootings, including addressing the trauma and impacts on mental health in their wake.
Gun reform advocacy groups have pushed for years to establish a White House office focused exclusively on gun violence prevention, what would be “an important center of gravity” to promote administration efforts and push Congress to strengthen legislation, according to Giffords executive director Peter Ambler.
“The hiring of Greg and Rob would show how seriously this administration takes its responsibility to address this crisis,” Mr Ambler said in a statement shared with The Independent.
Kris Brown, president of Brady, which had called on the White House to create the office in 2020, said that “just as FEMA responds to hurricanes and earthquakes, we have desperately needed a federal agency dedicated to responding to this growing public health crisis.”
“It’s important to remember, however, that executive action alone isn’t enough to end gun violence, which is why Congress must still act to pass common-sense gun laws, including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban,” she added.
David Hogg, among the leading faces of youth-led gun reform efforts and the March for Our Lives movement as a survivor of the 2018 massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School, said he “had so many damn Zoom calls from my college dorm room with allies and the White House about this.”
Assault weapons, the Supreme Court and a deadlocked Congress
Against urgent calls for reform, Republican officials and gun groups have instead steadily pushed for measures to expand access to firearms. The number of states allowing Americans to carry concealed firearms without a permit – a top priority for gun groups – has increased dramatically in recent years, with more than half of US states passing laws to expand that access within just the last decade alone.
Despite congressional failures to advance key measures to combat American gun violence, Mr Biden has had more success in enacting new gun safety legislation than any president since Bill Clinton’s two terms in the 1990s.
Last year, the president signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which clarifies licensing requirements for firearms dealers and strengthens background check requirements for gun purchases, including a review of juvenile records for anyone 16 years of age or older who attempts to purchase a firearm.
But it remains unlikely that Congress will take any action that will outright ban one of America’s most popular guns.
About one in 20 US adults – roughly 16 million Americans – own at least one AR-15-style rifle, which has exploded in popularity despite its role in a growing number of lethal mass shootings since a so-called “assault weapons ban” expired in 2004.
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act was enacted in 1994, but Congress repeatedly failed to renew the ban after a series of massacres involving high-powered rifles that were previously impacted by the law.
The president, who was then a senator from Delaware, played a major role in the passage of the 1994 legislation as part of that year’s massive anti-crime package enacted by then-President Bill Clinton.
A study from Northwestern University found that the ban prevented 11 public mass shootings within the decade it was in effect. The study also estimates that keeping the ban in place until 2019 would have prevented 30 public shootings that killed 339 and injured 1,139 people.
“There’s no better time for President Biden to lean in and use the bully pulpit to help bring the business community and public health experts together to coordinate a unified response to our gun violence epidemic,” said Guns Down America’s interim executive director Shannon Grady. “We look forward to supporting the administration as it moves forward.”
The Biden administration’s efforts also follow a landmark decision from the US Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority in 2022 that has thrown firearm restrictions into legal jeopardy, with a series of recent federal court rulings undermining progress on gun reform.
Last year’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v Bruen states that such restrictions must be historically consistent with the Second Amendment, or rooted in the nation’s “historical tradition.”
President Biden, reacting to the decision last year, said it “contradicts both common sense and the constitution, and should deeply trouble us all.”
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