The White House on Thursday poured cold water on the prospects of major gun control legislation passing Congress this year, leaving President Biden’s narrow executive actions tightening firearms regulations as the likely limit of his influence, despite heavy pressure from his base.
Advocacy groups cast the president’s unilateral moves as historic, though gun control advocates were steeling themselves for disappointment after their hopes for more expansive restrictions were dashed repeatedly over the past decade.
Though Mr. Biden’s executive actions were limited — cracking down on homemade high-tech weapons and firearms enhancements — he called on Congress to take more ambitious action, including expanding background checks, banning assault-style guns and high-capacity magazines and repealing liability immunity for manufacturers. In a Rose Garden event, the president told supporters that movement on gun control was “possible,” but acknowledged the political realities.
“We’ve got a long way to go. It seems like we always have a long way to go,” he said.
Minutes later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said getting background check legislation through Congress would be tough.
“I think the president is going to leave the analysis of what’s viable and doable to all of you and people on the outside,” Ms. Psaki told reporters at the White House. “And certainly, he’s not vote-counting himself. But he is also clear-eyed about the challenges in moving forward with legislation with the current makeup of the Senate.”
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As it stands, House-passed legislation to tighten background checks has essentially no chance of clearing the 60-vote threshold needed to thwart a filibuster in the 50-50 Senate.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, has said he does not support the House-passed legislation.
Gun control groups were growing impatient with Mr. Biden, who said during the presidential campaign that he would send Congress a bill to repeal liability for gun manufacturers on the day he was sworn into office.
“It is the role of Congress, of course, to push legislation forward to vote on it, to move it through committees, and he certainly is hopeful they will do exactly that on this issue,” Ms. Psaki said.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden announced that he would direct the Justice Department to issue a rule within 30 days to regulate “ghost” guns that can be manufactured from do-it-yourself kits. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive said more than 30% of the illegal weapons confiscated in California last year had no serial numbers and were untraceable.
The Justice Department, within 60 days, is also supposed to issue rules to more clearly define stabilizing braces, which many shooters attach to pistols to help guide their aim.
The department is also tasked with crafting model “red flag” legislation, which many states have adopted on their own in recent years. The laws allow families to petition law enforcement or the courts to temporarily seize guns from people judged to be a danger to themselves or others.
The Justice Department is also supposed to issue an annual report on firearms trafficking, and federal agencies are expected to look for ways to redirect money into community violence intervention programs.
Mr. Biden said Thursday that he was nominating David Chipman, a prominent gun control advocate and former federal agent, to lead the ATF.
Mr. Chipman would be the agency’s first permanent confirmed director since 2015.
Asked whether the White House is confident Mr. Chipman will be confirmed, Ms. Psaki said it’s up to the Senate.
Reaction from Republicans to Mr. Biden’s executive actions offered a glimpse of the long odds that more substantial legislation would face in Congress.
Republicans said the president’s actions amounted to executive overreach and wouldn’t do much to prevent mass shootings such as the recent killings in South Carolina, California, Colorado and Georgia.
Hours after Mr. Biden spoke, law enforcement in Bryan, Texas, said they were responding to a shooting incident that left at least one person dead and involved at least several other victims.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said Mr. Biden was trying to trample over Second Amendment rights via “executive fiat.”
“House Republicans will strongly oppose and pursue every option, be it legislative or judicial, to protect the right to keep and bear arms from infringement by this administration,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Gun rights advocates said the regulations on pistol braces and do-it-yourself firearms kits could unwittingly turn law-abiding gun owners into criminals.
“[We] will spare no expense to defeat Biden’s tyrannical agenda and will rally gun owners and Second Amendment supporters nationwide to defend the right to keep and bear arms,” said Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America.
Groups like Mr. Pratt’s are trying to carry the weight as the National Rifle Association, long the most powerful Second Amendment advocacy group, fights for its survival in bankruptcy court in Texas this week.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said the president’s actions should be considered only a start.
“Today, President Biden proved that he is committed to leading the strongest gun safety administration in history,” Mr. Feinblatt said.
Mr. Feinblatt said the political calculus has changed since the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting and that there are 50 Democratic votes in the Senate for “gun safety” measures.
“I believe that a bipartisan bill in 2021 can pass the Senate,” he said.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who worked with Mr. Manchin on background check legislation after Sandy Hook, opened the door a crack to working with Democrats on the issue.
“If done in a manner that respects the rights of law-abiding citizens, I believe there is an opportunity to strengthen our background check system so that we are better able to keep guns away from those who have no legal right to them,” Mr. Toomey said in a post on Twitter.
Chuck Rosenberg, a former acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, expressed skepticism about major action on Capitol Hill.
“We need Congress. I doubt we will have them,” Mr. Rosenberg said on MSNBC. “They haven’t had the guts in the past, and I doubt they’ll have the guts now.”
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, said Republican retirements could be an avenue for votes.
“We have overwhelming support among Democrats,” Ms. Watts said. “There are retiring Republicans who can vote their conscience. And I think there’s probably a lot more support for this than you would imagine in Congress.”