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Biden wants to boost background checks on gun buyers. But it's hard without Congress

President Biden announced a new executive order in Monterey Park, Calif. Tuesday that he says will increase the number of background checks and provide support for communities impacted by gun violence.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
President Biden announced a new executive order in Monterey Park, Calif. Tuesday that he says will increase the number of background checks and provide support for communities impacted by gun violence.

Updated March 14, 2023 at 5:56 PM ET

President Biden announced a new executive order on Tuesday during a visit to Monterey Park, Calif., that the White House says could boost the number of background checksthat are supposed to take place before a gun is purchased.

The order calls on the U.S. attorney general and other administration officials to come up with a plan to deal with firearm sellers who are avoiding doing the background checks, or who do not realize they are required to do them.

Biden's visit to Monterey Park comes after a mass shooting in January killed 11 and injured nine during Lunar New Year celebrations in the community. Two days later, another shooting in Half Moon Bay, Calif., killed seven. By some counts, there have been more than 100 mass shootings in 2023 so far.

"I'm here on behalf of the American people to mourn with you, to pray with you, to let you know you're loved and not alone," Biden said Tuesday in Monterey Park.

Last summer, Congress passed new gun safety legislation for the first time in nearly 30 years. The bill tweaked the definition of who is considered a gun dealer.

As a result, some people who sell guns from small collections or on the internet may not know they are required to run background checks on buyers, said Susan Rice, Biden's domestic policy adviser, in an interview with All Things Considered's Mary Louise Kelly.

But to close other loopholes in the background check system, Congress would need to pass legislation. That is unlikely to happen given that Republicans control the House of Representatives, Rice noted.

"Congress is in a difference place, in many respects, than the bulk of the American public," she said.

The White House said the attorney general will determine the specifics of the plan, so there are no details yet on how the administration will increase background checks or what the timeline for the plan is. The attorney general also has the task of coming up with a strategy to prevent federally licensed firearms dealers whose licenses have been revoked or surrendered from continuing to sell firearms.

Biden will also call on members of his Cabinet to work with law enforcement, health care providers and educators to help promote other ways to prevent shootings, including passing red-flag laws and encouraging the safe storage of weapons. He also wants to find ways to provide government support for communities that have been affected by mass shootings, the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency supports communities after natural disasters.

"We need to provide more mental health support for grief and trauma, and more financial assistance if a family loses the sole breadwinner, or when a small business shuts down due to a lengthy shooting investigation," Biden said.

Gun control advocates applaud Biden's actions

Gun control advocates are applauding the president for taking action, even without support from Congress.

"We're at a time when this crisis requires bipartisan ideas and solutions," said Greg Jackson, executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund. "This crisis is so large at this point that we need all of government, we need all of our elected officials and leaders ... to lean in with solutions the same way we did with COVID-19, the same way we've done with the opioid crisis, and other health crises in our country."

Jackson said he's particularly excited about Biden's proposal for federal support for communities in the aftermath of mass shootings. He said that could have helped last year after the shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 10 people: after the shooting, the predominantly Black community lost access to its lone grocery store for weeks.

Biden's actions could help counter Republican arguments on crime ahead of 2024

Republicans have been arguing that Democrats aren't tough enough on crime ahead of the 2024 presidential race.

Peter Ambler, the executive director of gun safety group Giffords, said he thinks Democrats need to show how crime is tied to firearms.

"The concerns that Americans have about violent crime is the result of increasing sales, increasing gun violence," Ambler said. "Gun violence prevention is a critical component of public safety."

Tory Gavito, the president of the left-leaning group Way to Win, told NPR that taking action on gun safety is a way for Biden to win support from all voters, not just Democrats, which could counter Republicans' attacks on Democrats when it comes to crime.

"This is one of those instances where community safety comes first above all else which is what the community is asking for, so it gets us out of the paradigm that allows Republicans to wedge Democrats," Gavito said.

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Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.