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President Biden and Vice President Harris are calling for bans on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, but they’re out of step with members of their own party who don’t want to vote on those hot-button issues and instead want to focus on more modest reforms.
Activists would like to see Biden take executive action to curb gun violence, but the president said over the weekend that he can’t do much by himself, kicking the issue to congressional Democrats as he has other elements of his agenda.
Democratic negotiators in the Senate, however, aren’t talking about a ban on assault-style rifles, like the weapon that a gunman used to kill 21 people at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, or a ban on high-capacity magazines, like the 30-round magazines the shooter took to the school.
They’re focused on what has a better chance of getting Republican support, like a proposal to expand background checks or encourage states to set up red flag laws that take guns away from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others.
“It’s really a study of incrementalism, I think that’s what [Sen.] Chris Murphy is doing,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, referring to the lead Democratic negotiator on gun control.
“He’s come to the realization that if he leads with an assault weapons ban, it’s not going to go anywhere. To get the 10 Republicans you need to break the filibuster, you can’t lead with a strong right hand. You’ve got to spar a little bit,” he said.
Murphy (D-Conn.) says he wants to get something done that saves lives, even if it doesn’t directly respond to the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, where in each incident 18-year-old shooters deployed AR-15–style rifles.
“Republicans are not willing to support everything that I support, like banning assault weapons. But I really think that we could pass something that saves lives and breaks this logjam that we’ve had for 30 years,” Murphy said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who’s in charge of protecting the Senate Democratic majority in November, said he agrees with the strategy of focusing on proposals that can pick up bipartisan support and get passed into law.
Alex Barrio, the director of advocacy for gun violence prevention policy at the Center for American Progress, pointed out that keeping a proposed assault weapons ban on the back burner keeps Democratic divisions out of the spotlight.
“There are also Democrats that do not support an assault weapons ban. We know that [Sen.] Joe Manchin is one of them. That being said, keeping off the table for now makes sense,” he said.
Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Angus King (I-Maine), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) voted with Manchin (D-W.Va.) and every Senate Republican against Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) proposal to ban assault weapons during the Senate’s last extended gun control debate, in 2013.
Barrio said he supports Murphy’s cautious approach to negotiating with Republicans but added that if the talks fail to produce a deal, Democrats should force a vote on an assault weapons ban.
“We understand why they’re not pushing it,” he said. “Sen. Murphy is in a good-faith negotiation to see what sort of package is possible to get Republican votes.”
“We know for a fact that no Republican is going to vote for it,” he said of the assault weapons ban.
“If Republicans pull back from these negotiations … if the Republicans refuse to do anything and they decide at the end that they’re going to be 50 votes ‘no’ on everything,” even proposals to encourage red flag laws, “then I do think the assault weapons [ban] does need to go on the floor, there does need to be a vote,” Barrio said.
He argued that public opinion is behind Democrats who want to ban assault weapons.
“It is true, over two-thirds of this country oppose the sale of assault weapons, and yet a majority of our senators and probably a majority of our congresspeople do not share that value,” he said.
Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at Brady, a group that advocates for gun control, said, “I certainly think the responsible call to action right now is to call for an assault weapons ban vote.”
“These are weapons with tactical features designed for the battlefield to make these weapons more lethal, which is why they are the connective tissue between so many of these mass-casualty shootings,” he said.
“When you hear about the fear that law enforcement had in having to go up against that weapon at the school, it shows what a chilling effect these weapons have,” he added.
Police officers in Uvalde have come under criticism for waiting more than hour outside Robb Elementary School before confronting the shooter. Eventually members from a specialized Border Patrol unit entered the classroom behind a protective shield and shot the killer.
Thirty-seven members of the Senate Democratic Caucus have co-sponsored Feinstein’s proposed assault weapons ban.
Two Democrats in tough reelection races, Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), haven’t signed on to Feinstein’s bill, but two other vulnerable Democrats — Sens. Maggie Hassan (N.H.) and Raphael Warnock (Ga.) — have done so.
Biden has taken a more aggressive approach than Senate Democratic negotiators, repeatedly expressing support for banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines while visiting the families of victims in Buffalo last month and on the South Lawn of the White House Monday.
“I know that it makes no sense to be able to purchase something that can fire up to 300 rounds,” he said Monday, while in Buffalo last month he noted that Congress passed a 10-year assault weapons ban while he was in the Senate.
Harris has been even more direct in calling for an assault weapons ban.
“We are not sitting around waiting to figure out what the solution looks like,” she said Saturday at a funeral service for one of the Buffalo victims. “We know what works on this. It includes — let’s have an assault weapons ban.”
Baker, the political scientist, called Biden’s and Harris’s calls for an assault weapons ban “ornamental.”
“It’s catering to the base, and there is built into that an understanding that Senate Democrats aren’t going to follow in lockstep, but it doesn’t damage them to have the president and vice president talking about it,” he said.
“It’s important for the base to be satisfied with what the president is saying and that individual senators are given latitude to fashion their own policy,” he added.
Polls show broad public support for an assault weapons ban, even though it has hardly any Republican support on Capitol Hill.
A Politico-Morning Consult poll conducted immediately after the shooting in Uvalde found that 67 percent of registered voters strongly or somewhat support an assault-style weapons ban and 69 percent of respondents favored banning high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Biden on Monday said he’s not involved in the negotiations, telling reporters that he deliberately did not engage in debate with Republicans before he visited Uvalde on Sunday.
But on Tuesday, the president signaled he planned to get more involved in what’s happening on Capitol Hill.
“I will meet with the Congress on guns, I promise you,” Biden told reporters during a meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the White House.