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Joe Biden has a 2nd chance to take on the NRA with action on background checks for gun sales

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Shortly after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, then-Vice President Joe Biden shared his advice for managing grief in a lengthy phone call with Mark Barden, who was still in shock from losing his seven-year-old son Daniel.

Keep a notepad by your bed, Biden told the father, a musician. At night, rate each day on a scale of 1 to 10. There will always be low days, but you’ll see they’ll get further apart over time, Barden recalled Biden saying.

“I remember feeling very comforted,” Barden said.

Daniel was among the 20 children and 6 adults gunned down in one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. In his first of several opportunities to speak with the vice president, Barden felt that Biden could relate to the trauma after losing his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash.

Barden felt a “kinship and connection” with Biden that he said defined their relationship moving forward as the two focused on a shared goal: sparing more families from devastating tragedies.

After the shooting, Biden — the former Democratic senator from Delaware for 36 years who had chaired the Judiciary Committee — led the Obama administration’s push for stricter gun policies and expanded background-check legislation for gun purchases.

Barden, who co-founded Sandy Hook Promise, and other Newtown, Connecticut, parents lobbied for the measure.

It didn’t work. The measure couldn’t overcome the power of the gun lobby.

And so four months after the deadly 2012 shooting, Biden presided over the Senate as the bipartisan legislation failed by six votes.

Leaving the Capitol that day, Biden said the Senate “let down an awful lot of people today, including those Newtown families, and I don’t know how anybody who looked them in the eye could have voted the way they did today.”

President Barack Obama described the moment as “a pretty shameful day for Washington” as Biden stood by, tight-lipped.

Months later, on his way to Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address, Biden called Barden again, to share his regrets. They spoke as the vice president rode in his motorcade to the Capitol.

“‘I just wish we were able to report that we were able to do more — able to do more to prevent this from happening to other families,'” Barden said, recalling Biden’s sentiment.

Vigil for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims in Parkland, Florida

‘Unfinished business’

Biden has another chance to deal with gun violence. It’s one of the top issues he campaigned on in 2020, and, along with racial injustice, climate change, and income inequality, it represents an opportunity for the 46th president and true creature of Washington to tackle one of the most divisive policy issues.

Biden is expected on Thursday to sign an executive order aimed at curbing gun violence, including requiring buyers of untraceable “ghost guns” — typically assembled at home and lacking serial numbers — to undergo background checks, according to the Associated Press.

Gun-control advocates say the need for policy changes and new laws is urgent. Gun sales and violence are on the rise. It seems no month goes by when a community isn’t marking a somber anniversary of a mass shooting that in the moment draws wall-to-wall cable-TV coverage, not to mention presidential visits to hospitals and memorial services.

Last month, Biden canceled a car rally with supporters in Atlanta to instead meet with Asian American and Pacific Islanders community leaders there, after a March 16 shooting spree in the Atlanta area in which a white man killed eight people, including six Asian women. Less than a week later, Americans were reeling again from another mass shooting at a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store that left 10 people dead.

“It’s a moment that’s screaming for urgent action on gun safety, and I think it is an historic opportunity to save lives,” John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said.

Biden recently marked the third anniversary of the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, by calling on Congress to pass legislation requiring universal background checks, banning “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines, and eliminating gun manufacturers’ immunity from lawsuits when crimes are committed with their weapons.

People who know Biden and remain in close contact with his administration told Insider that they think the Obama team’s failure to accomplish a legislative fix after Sandy Hook is a reason the new president won’t let up.

“I have to imagine that our failure to pass background checks in 2013 is a motivating factor for the president, as it is for all the rest of us,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who represented Newtown in the House of Representatives at the time of the shooting.

Murphy is leading the effort to pass universal-background-check legislation in the Senate. The House on March 11 passed two measures designed to close background-check loopholes. After the Colorado shooting, Biden urged the Senate to “immediately” pass those measures and ban “assault weapons,” as well.

“This is not, it should not be a partisan issue. This is an American issue,” he said. “It will save lives.”

A White House official in March said that the Biden administration was weighing executive actions to address gun violence.

Those actions, Feinblatt said, could include directives to halt ghost guns, boost funds for community-based violence-intervention programs, and clarify which sellers need to perform background checks.

“I don’t think there’s any question about it — background checks are unfinished business for him, and I’m completely confident he’s going to get it done,” Feinblatt said.

Biden released a broad plan to address gun violence during his 2020 campaign, and at least one outside group is eager to make changes as the administration starts advancing its priorities.

His $900 million campaign proposal for community-based violence-intervention programs, for example, should be increased to $5 billion because of its importance to urban communities, said Greg Jackson, advocacy director for the Community Justice Action Fund.

While background checks are “valuable,” communities of color need more immediate solutions in neighborhoods that are already “saturated” with firearms, Jackson added.

Biden needs to address gun violence as a public-health crisis with resources flowing into hard-hit communities, rather than the “typical crime control, law enforcement approach that has failed,” Jackson said.

The mayors of Louisville, Kentucky, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore, also called for a series of executive orders to address urban gun violence and to establish a gun-violence prevention task force that coordinates efforts throughout the administration and cities.

Gun violence and COVID-19 have created a “perfect storm in our cities, stretching us to unacceptable limits and leaving far too many people dead or harmed in their wake,” the mayors wrote in a CNN op-ed published on February 17.

White House officials have been hearing from a broad range of gun-violence-prevention groups, holding meetings with several of them last month. Some Black- and Brown-led groups balked when they weren’t included in an initial meeting with large gun-control groups, arguing that communities of color were most affected by violence, Jackson said. Officials met with the groups the following week.

“With the homicide rates being overwhelmingly reflective of Black and Brown folks, you need these organizations at the table if you’re truly committed to addressing gun violence as a whole,” Jackson said.

The guy who ‘beat’ the NRA

Biden made ending gun violence a focal point of his presidential campaign by offering a plan that called it a “public-health epidemic.” He often touted how he “beat” the National Rifle Association on gun-control measures twice in the 1990s and said he’d do it again.

As the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden helped pass legislation in 1993 establishing the federal background-check system. His panel also authored parts of the 1994 crime bill signed by President Bill Clinton that temporarily banned “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines.

Yet Biden hasn’t always favored more gun regulations.

Earlier in his Senate career, Biden joined a bipartisan majority in voting for the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act (FOPA) signed by President Ronald Reagan. The law banned the sale of new machine guns to civilians. But it was later described by the NRA as “the law that saved gun rights,” The Trace reported, highlighting Biden’s 1985 Senate-floor comment: “I have never believed that additional gun control or federal registration of guns would reduce crime.”

Biden’s evolution reflects how attitudes toward gun violence have changed, as the NRA has become “more extreme” and people become better educated on the “gaping holes” that exist in gun laws and the pain Americans feel because of violence, said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy for the Brady gun-control group.

“That has an impact, especially for somebody like Joe Biden, who is as compassionate and cares deeply for people as he does,” he said. “I can’t speak to the vote on FOPA. But I can tell you that a majority of his lifespan as a politician has been trying to do what he can to keep Americans safe from gun violence.”

Gun control advocates are quick with praise for Biden’s policies. It’s still early days, but Feinblatt called his Democratic White House “the strongest gun-safety administration in history.”

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‘Just incredible irony’

More background checks wouldn’t have stopped the 20-year-old Sandy Hook shooter from taking his mother’s cache of legally obtained weapons, but at the time the Bardens couldn’t understand how it was possible to buy a semiautomatic weapon without a background check.

They had just been through an extensive vetting process to adopt two shelter kittens that Daniel wanted for Christmas but didn’t live long enough to see.

“We just thought that was just incredible irony — the difference between adopting a kitten and buying a semiautomatic assault rifle,” Barden said.

Obama’s administration would nonetheless run into challenges in trying to do anything of substance on legislation to fight gun violence in its second term, despite other headline-grabbing tragedies at places like Washington, DC’s Navy Yard, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and a Charleston, South Carolina, church.

In 2013, a host of gun-control bills failed to move through Congress, including Obama-backed measures to ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. The background-check measure — offered by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — seemed uncontroversial to the Bardens.

It called for background checks for private sales at gun shows and all internet sales and exempted transactions between family and friends.

But the NRA galvanized the opposition with criticism that the amendment would have “criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution.” PolitiFact rated that statement “mostly false.”

The political landscape for gun control is different now, gun-control advocates say.

“Misconceptions” by the gun lobby aren’t being accepted by the American public, said Adzi Vokhiwa, federal affairs director for Giffords, the gun-control-advocacy group cofounded by the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot along with 18 others in 2011.

“Something like universal background checks, people recognize, is not a threat to their right to own a gun. It’s not kicking open the doorway to a registry or eradicating the Second Amendment,” she said.

Both Republican and Democratic governors have signed “red flag” laws allowing a person’s access to guns to be restricted when they show warning signs. Democrats have moved to the left on background checks and now campaign on the issue.

“Democrats now run on the issue of background checks in swing districts, and if Republicans want to win back control of the House or the Senate, they have to moderate their position on background checks,” said Sen. Murphy, who is now in his second term.

Biden, who has been under increased pressure after the shootings in Atlanta and Colorado to quickly address gun violence, has emphasized the need for quick Senate action. 

Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans support background checks for gun sales. Even so, the legislation would require an active public-relations and lobbying campaign by the Biden White House to win 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate, Murphy said.

“I think it will be difficult,” Murphy said, “but entirely possible.”

A spokesman for the NRA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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‘It hit me all of a sudden’

In 2013 some Republican opponents accused the Obama administration of exploiting Sandy Hook families for political gain. Barden said that wasn’t the case. They worked to sway votes on Capitol Hill against Biden’s explicit wishes.

“Joe Biden sat us down and said, ‘Look, when I suffered the loss of my wife and daughter, I was not able to go advocate for automobile safety in that aftermath,'” Barden recalled, adding: “It was our choice to go down there and advocate for this.”

Today, Barden’s plan is to press on. He wants to work closely with the Biden administration to advance violence-prevention training for schools and communities, support their campaign proposal to boost the mental-health professionals in schools, and push for universal background checks in Congress.

He’s hopeful — especially if enough elected officials hear from their constituents.

Another reason for hope: Last month, Barden and his wife, Jackie, chuckled recalling how Daniel once whispered about them to his sister Natalie: “They have a song for everything.” Then Barden started to well up, he said.

“But what it made me think of was when Joe Biden said to me, ‘There will come a day, when a story or a thought, or a memory of Daniel will bring a smile to your face before it brings a tear to your eye,'” he said. “And I reflected on that. I mean, it hit me all of a sudden, like, ‘Wow, we did.'”

This story was originally published on March 2, 2021, and has been updated to reflect the mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, and Biden’s expected moves to curb gun violence.

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