But Biden did it the new-fashioned way: by executive action that didn’t require passage from an uncooperative Congress.
“If you commit a crime with a ghost gun, expect federal prosecution,” Biden said in a White House Rose Garden event attended by members of Congress and gun control advocates. Unusually for a Democratic president, Biden briefly held a gun in his hand, showing how easy it was to buy the parts and assemble such a gun that cannot be traced by authorities if it is recovered at a crime scene.
Political Cartoons on Joe Biden
“This is the gun,” he said. “It’s not hard to put together. Anyone can order it in the mail. Anyone … a felon, a terrorist, [a] domestic abuser [can] go from a gun kit to a gun in as little as 30 minutes.”
Police say they are finding such guns in droves at crime scenes. Some 20,000 “ghost guns” were reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives last year, Biden said, a tenfold increase from 2016.
The rule – proposed months ago and made final after a public comment period – bans the manufacture of what the Justice Department calls the most “accessible ghost guns,” the “buy, build, shoot” kits people can purchase online or at a store without a background check and assemble easily at home.
The new rules also require firearms sellers to take any unserialized guns into inventory so they can be given serial numbers.
The announcement of the final rule was a policy and political accomplishment for Biden, who has been under pressure from gun safety advocates – many of whom were at the White House event and one of whom, a student who survived a school shooting herself – delivered remarks.
But it was also a sign of things to come for a president who is finding it harder to get his agenda through a closely divided Congress, especially as the midterm election season approaches. Even a big personal triumph for the president, getting Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmed as the nation’s first Black female Supreme Court justice last week, was marred by comments from Republican senators that Biden would have a much harder time, should he have the chance to appoint another person to the high court.
The president’s “Build Back Better” plan, a sweeping domestic spending bill rebranded this year as “Building a Better America,” is all but dead in the Senate, although administration officials are hopeful some pieces – such as cheaper prescription drug prices – might get passed separately.
And when it comes to any kind of gun control, the legislative path is even more treacherous. Despite calls for action after school rampages and mass shootings in other arenas, Congress has defiantly refused to approve limits on ownership and types of guns. Even legislation requiring universal background checks has been stymied on Capitol Hill.
“It isn’t extreme. It’s just basic common sense,” Biden said, laying the blame on the National Rifle Association and its powerful lobby.
The rules made final Monday didn’t require any approval from the legislative branch, but Biden said he wanted them to do more.
“None of this absolves Congress … for the responsibility to act,” he said.
The rules are sure to be challenged in court on the grounds that the president does not have the authority to take such an action unilaterally. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that the administration believes the rules pass constitutional and legal muster.
And if Biden is to get more accomplished before a daunting election season for Democrats, he may have to do it by executive order and rule-making. President Barack Obama did much the same thing after Democrats lost control of both chambers of Congress after the 2010 midterms.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, for example, was being negotiated last year by a bipartisan team of lawmakers. but negotiations fell apart, and Psaki indicated Biden would end up doing by presidential pen what Congress could not do by law.
While Biden prefers a permanent law aimed at preventing abuses of police power, “obviously, that’s not a process that is rapidly moving forward,” Psaki said. But the administration has “every intention of the president signing an executive order on policing reform,” she added.
Biden also announced the nomination of Steve Dettelbach to serve as director of ATF, an agency that has not had a confirmed chief in seven years. Biden’s first pick for the job, David Chipman, had a background with ATF but ran into opposition from lawmakers in both parties because he worked for a gun control organization after he left the federal agency.
Dettelbach is a former U.S. attorney and career prosecutor who was confirmed unanimously in 2009 to be U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.
Dettelbach has the endorsement of a number of GOP-appointed prosecutors, but he, too, may run into interference from Senate Republicans in no mood to give Biden easy confirmations. Gun rights advocates already oppose him.
“Steve Dettelbach has called for banning “assault weapons” and endorsed universal background checks,” Gun Owners of America tweeted. “He is the wrong pick for the ATF and GOA will fight back.”