Emboldened Biden and Democrats push to revive the assault weapons ban

Assault rifles on display
Assault rifles are displayed at a gun shop in Auburn, Maine.
(Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press)

When President Biden speaks about the “scourge” of gun violence, his focus returns to reviving a ban on assault weapons.

He reiterated that call this week after shootings in Colorado and Virginia: Biden wants to sign into law a renewed ban on high-powered guns that have the capacity to kill many people very quickly.

“The idea we still allow semiautomatic weapons to be purchased is sick. Just sick,” Biden said on Thanksgiving Day. “I’m going to try to get rid of assault weapons.”


After the mass killing last Saturday at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, he said in a statement: “When will we decide we’ve had enough? ... We need to enact an assault weapons ban to get weapons of war off America’s streets.”

When Biden and other lawmakers talk about assault weapons, they are using an inexact term to describe a group of high-powered guns or semiautomatic long rifles, such as the AR-15, that can fire 30 rounds fast without reloading. By comparison, New York Police Department officers carry a handgun that shoots about half that much.

A weapons ban is far off in a closely divided Congress. But Biden and the Democrats have become increasingly emboldened in pushing for stronger gun controls — and doing so with no clear electoral consequences.

The Democratic-led House passed legislation in July to revive a 1990s-era ban on assault weapons, with Biden’s vocal support. And the president pushed a ban nearly everywhere that he campaigned this year.

In the midterm elections, Democrats kept control of the Senate and Republicans were able to claim a House majority by a narrower margin than they had expected.

The tough talk follows passage in June of a landmark bipartisan bill on gun laws, and it reflects steady progress that gun control advocates have been making in recent years.


“I think the American public has been waiting for this message,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), who has been the Senate’s leading advocate for stronger gun restrictions since the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. “There has been a thirst from voters, especially swing voters, young voters, parents, to hear candidates talk about gun violence, and I think Democrats are finally sort of catching up with where the public has been.”

Just over half of voters want to see nationwide gun policy made more strict, according to AP VoteCast, an extensive survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide conducted for the Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago. About 3 in 10 want gun policy kept as is, and 14% prefer looser gun laws.

There are clear partisan divides. About 9 in 10 Democrats want stricter gun laws, compared with about 3 in 10 Republicans. About half of Republicans want gun laws left as they are, and one-quarter want to see gun laws be made less strict.

Once banned in the United States, the high-powered firearms are now the weapon of choice among young men responsible for many of the most devastating mass shootings. Congress allowed the restrictions put in place in 1994 on the manufacture and sales of the weapons to expire a decade later, unable to muster the political support to counter the powerful gun lobby and reinstate the weapons ban.

When he was governor of Florida, current Republican Sen. Rick Scott signed gun control laws in the wake of mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. But he has consistently opposed weapons bans, arguing like many of his Republican colleagues that most gun owners use them lawfully.

“People are doing the right thing; why would we take away their weapons?” Scott asked as the Senate was negotiating gun legislation last summer. “It doesn’t make any sense.”


He said more mental health counseling, assessments of troubled students and law enforcement on campus make more sense.

“Let’s focus on things that actually would change something,” Scott said.

Law enforcement officials have long called for stricter gun laws, arguing that the availability of these weapons makes people less safe and makes their jobs more dangerous.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore, who heads the country’s third-largest police department, said it just makes sense to talk about restricting firearms when gun violence is rising nationwide, and consider what the government can do to make the streets safer. He said he is grateful Biden is bringing it up so much.

“This isn’t a one-and-done,” Moore said of the shooting last weekend at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo. “These things are evolving all the time, in other cities, at any moment another incident happens. It’s crying out for the federal government, for our legislators, to go out and make this change,” he said.

On Tuesday, six people were shot dead at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Va. Over the last six months there has been a supermarket shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., a massacre of school children in Uvalde, Texas, and the Fourth of July parade killing of revelers in Highland Park, Ill.

The legislation that Biden signed in June will, among other things, help states put in place “red flag” laws that make it easier for authorities to take weapons from people judged to be dangerous.


But a ban was never on the table.

A 60-vote threshold in the Senate means some Republicans must be on board. Most are steadfastly opposed, arguing it would be too complicated, especially as sales and varieties of firearms have proliferated. There are many more types of these high-powered guns today than in 1994, when the ban was signed into law by President Clinton.

“I’d rather not try to define a whole group of guns as being no longer available to the American public,” Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said. “For those of us who have grown up with guns as part of our culture, and we use them as tools — there’s millions of us, there’s hundreds of millions of us — that use them lawfully.”

In many states where the bans have been enacted, the restrictions are being challenged in court, gaining strength from a Supreme Court ruling in June expanding gun rights.

“We feel pretty confident, even despite the arguments made by the other side, that history and tradition as well as the text of the 2nd Amendment are on our side,” said David Warrington, chairman and general counsel for the National Foundation for Gun Rights.

Biden was instrumental in helping secure the 1990s ban as a senator. The White House has noted statistics showing that while it was in place, mass shootings declined, and when it expired in 2004, shootings tripled.

The reality is complicated. The data on the effectiveness is mixed and there is a sense that other measures that are not as politically fraught might actually be more effective, said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York-Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”


Politically, the ban sparked a backlash, even though the final law was a compromise version of the initial bill, he said.

“The gun community was furious,” Spitzer said.

The ban has been blamed in some circles for the Democrats losing control of Congress in 1994, though subsequent research has shown that the loss was probably more about strong, well-funded conservative candidates and district boundaries, Spitzer said.

Still, after Democrat Al Gore, who supported stricter gun laws, lost the 2000 White House race to Republican George W. Bush, Democrats largely backed off the issue until the Sandy Hook shooting a decade ago. Even after that, it was not a campaign topic until the 2018 midterms.

Now, gun control advocates see progress.

“The fact that the American people elected a president who has long been a vocal and steadfast supporter of bold gun safety laws — and recently reelected a gun-sense majority to the Senate — says everything you need to know about how dramatically the politics on this issue have shifted,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Associated Press writer Nuha Dolby contributed to this report.