WASHINGTON — President Biden declared himself powerless Tuesday to respond to the scourge of gun violence in America, a remarkably blunt admission one day after an assailant killed six peopleincluding three children, at a school in Nashville.
“I have done everything possible by my executive authority to do, on my own, anything gun-related,” Biden told reporters, responding to questions about what actions he could take to prevent mass shootings.
It was a stark and startling statement from the president, who essentially gave up on one of the most difficult problems facing American society.
While the political system has remained near deadlock for more than a decade with major changes to gun laws, despite one gruesome shooting after another, Biden sought to shift the burden to Senators and Representatives who have so far refused to Act.
Even with majorities in both houses of Congress during Biden’s first two years in office, Democrats were unable to pass an assault weapons ban, and any effort now would almost certainly fail in the Republican-controlled House.
Biden pushed back on questions about whether he could, or should, do more through executive action, such as trying to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or addressing mental health issues often seen as the cause of mass shootings.
“Congress has to act,” Biden told reporters while addressing an economic event at a North Carolina semiconductor plant. “Most Americans think having assault weapons is weird; it’s a crazy idea. They are against it. So I think Congress should pass an assault weapons ban.”
To be clear, he said: “I can’t do anything except plead with Congress to act reasonably.”
Speaking later at the event in North Carolina, Mr. Biden did just that, urging Congress to ban assault weapons and saying they should try to keep “weapons of war” out of the reach of people who might use them. to kill children and other people. .
“People say, ‘Why am I still saying this if it’s not happening?’” the president said. “Because I want you to know who isn’t doing it. Who is not helping. To put pressure on them.”
He added that there was “a moral price to pay for inaction.”
But there were no signs that congressional action was imminent, far from it.
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As Democrats renewed their calls to pass gun safety legislation Tuesday, Republicans made it clear they were unwilling to budge on their opposition to assault weapons bans and other aggressive measures.
“Regarding any discussion of legislation, it is premature,” said Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, citing an “ongoing investigation” and the need to gather more data.
Other members of his group went further and seized on the gender of the shooter, who authorities say identified him as transgender, as a way to steer the conversation away from gun safety. Sen. JD Vance, Republican of Ohio, said in a Twitter post that the tragedy suggested that “giving in to these ideas” about accepting transgender people was “dangerous.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, highlighted questions about the shooter’s gender identity, which she said meant “everyone can stop blaming guns now.”
Quinton Lucas, chairman of the US Conference of Mayors committee on criminal justice, said the president’s comments reflect the deep frustration of many Americans.
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“Maybe it’s not so disappointing or surprising that the president says that,” said Mr. Lucas, who is the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. and each person just shakes their head and says, ‘yes, that’s right.’”
Lucas said he and his colleagues often talk about how to handle school shootings, assuming they are inevitable in their communities.
“I feel like we’ve given up,” he said.
Mark K. Updegrove, a presidential historian, said Biden’s blunt comments about the limits of his power are not unlike the kind of private assessment Lyndon Baines Johnson once gave the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in private about their lack of power to pass voting rights laws.
According to Mr. Updegrove, Mr. Johnson flatly told Dr. King in 1964 that he did not have the power to pass the bill in Congress.
In the case of Biden, the frank recognition was public, not private. Updegrove said he saw it as a way for the president to put additional pressure on Congress.
“That’s the right message to send,” said Mr. Updegrove, president of the LBJ Foundation in Austin, Texas. “’I’m doing everything I can for gun reform. I have already done it to the extent that I can do it. It is up to Congress to act.’”
Mr. Biden reminded reporters Tuesday that, as a senator, he led the successful effort in 1994 to pass an assault weapons ban as a way to reduce the use of “weapons of war” in shootings at schools, malls and other places. The ban stood until Congress let it lapse 10 years later.
Since then, however, Washington has refused to reinstate the ban and has largely failed to pass significant new restrictions on the sale, manufacture, or distribution of firearms. Modest bipartisan legislation passed last year and signed into law by Mr. Biden offered incentives to local governments to establish red flag laws and made minor changes to background check laws.
The question of what to do about gun violence in America has been a challenge for presidents for years.
In 2012, President Barack Obama fought back tears as he reacted to the murder of 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Months later, he responded angrily when the Senate rejected his request for universal background checks on all gun sales. Obama called it an “embarrassing day for Washington.”
“But this effort is not over,” Obama said, echoing the language of presidents before and after him. “I want to make it clear to the American people that we can still make meaningful change that reduces gun violence, as long as the American people don’t give up. Even without Congress, my administration will continue to do everything we can to protect more of our communities.”
In 2018, after a high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, President Donald J. Trump called a session broadcast live on television and declared, “It would be so beautiful to have a bill that everyone could support. It’s time for a president to step up.” He later abandoned efforts to pass gun safety legislation in the face of lobbying from conservative lawmakers and the National Rifle Association.
During his first two years in office, Mr. Biden has repeatedly promised to use executive power to make progress even as action in Congress remains deadlocked.
This month in Monterey Park, California, the site of another mass shooting, Biden announced a series of executive actions directing administration officials to do everything possible, without new legislation from Congress, to expand background checks and Limit the spread of illegal weapons.
But he seemed concerned that members of Congress could use continued executive action as an excuse to avoid taking action of their own.
“Let’s be clear,” Biden said during his remarks at Monterey Park. “None of this absolves Congress of responsibility to act to pass universal background checks, remove liability immunity for gun manufacturers.”
“So let’s finish the job,” he added. “Ban assault weapons. Ban them again. Do it now. Enough. Do something. Do something big.”
annie carni contributed reporting from Washington.