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What Ideas Are in Play in (Yet Another) US Gun Debate: QuickTake

May 26, 2022, 5:03 PM

Recent shootings at a Texas elementary school and New York grocery store have put a spotlight on Washington’s inaction on guns. Democrats in the US Congress have long supported legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers and remove guns from people exhibiting violent behavior. President Joe Biden, who helped pass a landmark gun violence law as a senator, wants the Senate to confirm his nominee to lead the top federal firearms regulator. But any effort to restrict firearms in America must overcome a strong and organized defense of unfettered gun ownership, backed by Republicans’ broad interpretation of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. Here’s a status report on proposed government actions.

Require ‘Red Flag’ Laws

Gun-regulation talks in the Senate have so far centered on so-called red-flag laws, which empower family members or police officers to ask a court to temporarily remove the right to own firearms from people exhibiting violent behavior. A bipartisan group of four senators, led by Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, offered legislation in 2021 that would create a new grant program to encourage more states to adopt such laws. The bill stops short of mandating them, with Rubio saying that the choice should be up to individual states. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia already have red-flag laws.

Confirm Top Firearm Regulator

In April, Biden nominated former prosecutor Steve Dettelbach to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which hasn’t had a permanent director since 2015. The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on whether to send his name to the full Senate for consideration. Biden withdrew his initial choice to lead the regulator in the fall of 2021, after he failed to win a majority of the Senate’s support. Unanimous Republican opposition to Dettelbach is expected, so Democrats can’t afford a single “no” vote in the 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris has the power to break ties. Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who normally can be counted on as part of the 50-vote Democratic bloc, helped tank Biden’s first choice for the job. But he’s told reporters that he’ll vote to confirm Dettelbach.

Fund Local Violence-Prevention Efforts

Violence-prevention programs in underserved urban neighborhoods try to steer would-be violent criminals toward worthier endeavors. In May, Biden nominated criminal justice attorney Amy Solomon to lead the Justice Department office that funds such programs. The Senate has yet to consider her nomination. In 2021, Biden broadened the federal funding available to such programs and asked Congress for an extra $5 billion over eight years to fund them, but that funding request is stalled along with much of Biden’s proposed spending on social programs.

Expand Background Checks

Licensed firearm dealers are required to run background checks, but private sellers -- those who sell firearms only occasionally, for example -- don’t need licenses. This discrepancy is often shorthanded as the gun-show loophole. Shortly after the May 24 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he would force a vote to expand criminal background checks to would-be gun buyers on the internet and at gun shows. But he later pulled back, saying that Democrats would instead try to find a consensus proposal that could draw in enough Republican support to move forward. (Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, founded and helps fund Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for universal background checks and other gun violence prevention measures.)

Ban Certain Firearms

A 1986 law signed by President Ronald Reagan, who had survived a would-be assassin’s bullet five years earlier, banned most civilians from purchasing newly manufactured automatic weapons. For those made before 1986 and owned by civilians, the law imposed strict rules on transferring them to a new owner. In 1994, Congress created the background-check system and banned new semiautomatic weapons that resemble assault-style weapons. That ban, which gun-control advocates criticized for its loopholes, expired in 2004 without action by Congress to renew it. Since then, Democrats have tried and failed to pass legislation restricting semiautomatic weapons. The gunman in the Texas shooting legally bought two semiautomatic AR-style rifles shortly after his 18th birthday, according to the Texas Tribune.

Prohibit Large-Capacity Magazines

The 1994 assault weapons ban also prohibited large-capacity magazines, devices that store and feed ammunition, during the 10 years it was in effect. “Large-capacity” was defined as anything holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Since the ban expired in 2004, gun owners have been able to purchase magazines capable of holding 100 rounds of ammunition. Nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws banning large-capacity magazines. Democratic lawmakers led several unsuccessful attempts to reinstate the federal ban, including after the single deadliest mass shooting in US history. Biden said during his 2020 presidential campaign that he would sign off on a ban, though there’s little indication any such bill can gather enough support to clear the 60-vote supermajority needed to pass most legislation in the Senate.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg QuickTake explainer on guns in America.
  • All about the 1994 ban on assault-style weapons.
  • A Council on Foreign Relations report comparing gun laws in the US to those in other wealthy democracies.
  • A Library of Congress report summarizing gun control laws in 18 industrialized countries and the European Union.
  • A Congressional Research Service report on federal firearms laws.

--With assistance from Laura Litvan.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Courtney Rozen in Washington at;
Daniel Flatley in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Laurence Arnold at

Bernard Kohn

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