WASHINGTON — Democrats have spent years pledging to address the gun violence that plagues communities across the U.S. But a surge of mass shootings over the weekend that left dozens wounded and two dead served as a reminder of how little they have accomplished since taking control of Washington 15 months ago.
The struggle for the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress to enact any meaningful legislation to enhance gun safety reflects how the party’s ambitious agenda has been frustratingly stunted by internal squabbling, the persistence of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The almost complete Republican opposition to Democratic priorities, including gun rules, has hobbled a party with razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate.
But that’s little solace to gun safety advocates and tens of thousands of shooting victims who were told Democrats would reduce gun violence if given the chance to govern. In an already difficult election year, the inaction threatens to further undermine the coalition of young people, women, voters of color and independents who helped deliver Joe Biden the presidency in 2020 and will be needed again if Democrats are to hold control of Congress.
“I’m just angry,” said David Hogg, a gun safety activist who survived the 2018 shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “We took the House and then we took the Senate and now we have the White House, too, and still, nothing is changing.”
Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., whose son was shot to death nearly a decade ago, encouraged those frustrated with the pace of progress to be patient. She likened the fight to reduce gun violence to her parents' fight for civil rights a generation earlier.
“Change doesn’t come as quickly as we ever want it to happen. Because understand, this is a culture that we’re having to change,” McBath said in an interview. “I know that we’re making real progress on this issue. The fact that I am actually in Washington, and I was elected in Georgia with a gun violence policy agenda ... tells you there is progress.”
Yet McBath's return to Congress next year is far from assured. She's locked in a competitive primary against Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux in a redrawn district in Atlanta's northeast suburbs.
Meanwhile, White House aides insist that Biden is doing all he can to keep the issue of gun violence front and center.
Just last week, the Democratic president signed an executive order to crack down on untraceable “ghost guns.” He also devoted part of his first State of the Union speech to gun violence and called for major increases in police funding in his 2023 budget proposal.
But some of those same progressives who cheered the president’s efforts insist he and his party are not doing enough.
“It’s appalling, it’s horrifying, it’s so very sad and embarrassing that this is just continuing and getting worse,” said Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son, Daniel, was among 26 students and educators killed in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Barden now serves as co-founder and CEO of Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund, one of the gun violence prevention groups that emerged over the last decade to help counter the gun lobby's influence on policy and politics.
“Congress needs to step up and get to work,” Barden said, noting that this December marks the 10th anniversary of his first-grade son’s murder.
Democrats’ frustration around gun violence prevention is not new.
After the Sandy Hook shooting, President Barack Obama tried and failed to convince Congress to enact popular gun safety measures like universal background checks and an assault weapon ban.
There’s little sign now that the Democrats who control Congress will send gun safety measures to Biden's desk anytime soon.
The House passed legislation last year to expand background checks to include private and online sales, including at gun shows. But Senate Democratic leaders haven’t yet scheduled their version of the legislation for a vote. And facing near-unanimous GOP opposition, Democrats would need support from at least 10 Republicans in a 50-50 Senate to overcome any filibuster.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tried to bring the background check bill up for a Senate vote in December, but that effort failed when Republicans objected. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia also opposes the House bill.
Asked whether Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would bring gun safety legislation up for a vote, an aide pointed to comments the New York Democrat made in February.
“Sen. Murphy had been trying to work with Republicans to get 60 votes. He hasn’t given up on those efforts, although they’ve not gotten that far. But we’re going to keep pursuing background checks. I believe in that very, very strongly,” Schumer said at the time.
In the meantime, more Americans are dying from gun-related injuries than ever before.
In 2020, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 19,384 people were killed in gun homicides — a 35% increase from the previous year and the largest one-year increase in gun homicides on record.
Republicans have overwhelmingly opposed gun control measures, casting any tightening of current law as a threat to the constitutionally protected right to bear arms. The GOP has instead called for stronger policing and more gun ownership to combat the crime surge.
At the same time, Republicans have seized on the spike in violent crime under the broad umbrella of public safety as a wedge issue to reshape how voters view gun violence. Republicans did well across Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in last fall's off-year elections with public safety as one of their primary talking points.
And the gun lobby is convinced that public safety concerns will help its Republican allies retake the House, if not the Senate, this fall.
“We see a lot of opportunity” heading into the midterms, said National Rifle Association spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam. “Whether the gun control lobby realizes it or not, there’s an increased appreciation and realization in this country that gun control does not make people safer.”
The NRA has already celebrated sweeping successes at the state level in its push to allow people to carry concealed weapons without a license. Republican lawmakers in nine states enacted such laws since Democrats came to power in Washington in 2021. Overall, 25 states no longer require gun owners to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon in public.
Guns remain an incredibly divisive issue in American politics, though polling suggests the issue has been overshadowed over the last year by other events.
In an AP-NORC poll last December, 24% named gun laws in an open-ended question as one of five top issues for the government to work on in 2022. That ranked below other issues, like the economy, COVID-19 and even immigration, but the percentage prioritizing gun laws for 2022 grew from 5% for 2021 and 12% for 2020. The poll was conducted the weekend after a shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan killed four and injured seven.
Forty-one percent of Democrats named gun laws as a government priority in 2022, compared to just 6% of Republicans.
Meanwhile, gun safety groups like March For Our Lives are ratcheting up pressure on Democrats to take action. The group for the first time is backing primary challenges this spring and summer to Democratic incumbents who haven't prioritized the issue.
On Tuesday, Hogg and other young activists with March For Our Lives dropped body bags outside Schumer's New York office to protest his unwillingness to bring gun safety legislation to the Senate floor for a vote.
“Democrats suck at fulfilling these promises," Hogg said.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.