The White House Has Done Just About All It Can on Gun Violence

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The White House Has Done Just About All It Can on Gun Violence
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The White House Has Done Just About All It Can on Gun Violence

Vice President Joe Biden gave a speech this afternoon celebrating the administration's push for new restrictions on gun ownership. Which is a little like an athlete stopping mid-race to say that he already considered himself a winner. While in sixth place.

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To be fair, the administration has done perhaps as much as it can to make progress on an issue that the Senate couldn't complete and the House never started. That was the real goal of Biden's speech — to point out that the president's January announcement of 23 executive actions on gun violence had almost completely gone into effect. (As the Washington Post noted, the venue for the speech was the same one where the list was announced.) Completed on that to-do list — developed by a task force Biden led — were some concrete measures, like publishing data on lost guns and allowing research on gun violence. Others were more aspirational: improving incentives, encouraging dealers, supporting development of gun safety technology. The two still-incomplete items: finalizing rules around insuring mental health coverage in group health plans and confirming a new director to run the ATF.

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(The administration also released guides suggesting how institutions might plan for "active shooter" situations, or other unlikely disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes. Should your school, college, or house of worship be interested, click those links.)

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The impetus for the president's initial push was, of course, the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. At times lamenting the failure of Congress to do anything, Biden kept returning to the human toll from that mass shooting and the thousands of others that have occurred in the past six months. "We need to make sure that the voice of those we've lost are the loudest ones we hear in this fight," Biden said multiple times during the speech. Over 5,000 people have been shot and killed since December 14, a total that, as Biden noted, exceeds the loss of life of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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The culmination of his speech focused on politics — as it had to. There aren't many more places for the administration to go, after all, without Congress actually doing something. For weeks, there have been rumors that the White House and Senate Democrats plan to reintroduce the gun package that faded following a vote rejecting a key compromise. In the aftermath of that failure, Biden says, he remains optimistic that something can be done. "I've gotten those phone calls from members of Congress — many of whom voted no — asking: Can you find a way?" Can you find a way, that is, to make a deal happen on expanded background checks and new limitations on gun trafficking? Politico reports that Biden staffers wouldn't identify the senators with whom the vice president had been working.

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Nonetheless, Biden suggested that it wasn't only the politicians whose attitudes had changed. Pointing to polling in the wake of the failed vote, Biden promised that opponents would pay a political price. He insisted that voters would make politicians pay for their opposition, that they now say, "This will be a defining issue for me." That may be, but in some conservative states with Democratic senators, that likely won't be enough.

If the speech was meant to be a spark to a new push for legislation, to inspire that sixth-place runner to get across the finish line, it's not clear how much effect it will have. Beyond robust investment from Bloomberg's gun control group, passion on the subject has waned if not dissipated since April. Biden may be optimistic, but the administration needs a stronger hand than it had then.

Maybe it has one. But if it does, it's being held in Washington, D.C. On Friday, the six-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, advocates for reform including the national pro-Obama group Organizing For Action held a rally in San Bernadino. OFA, as its known, was harshly criticized for its tepid engagement in the background check fight. On Friday, the rally had three members of the group in attendance.

Photo: Biden, at an event in May. (Reuters)

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