President Joe Biden announced a series of steps to confront gun violence Thursday, including prevention efforts and federal grant priorities directed toward children and schools.
Those actions include ideas that have consistently emerged in years of debates following prominent school shootings, such as a push for state and federal red flag laws, which allow courts to temporarily limit a person’s access to firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others. Red flag laws gained traction following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a former student killed 17 people.
Biden also directed several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, to add violence intervention efforts to their priorities for grant programs and to issue new guidance for school prevention programs.
“Enough prayers,” Biden said at a speech in the White House Rose Garden. “It’s time for some action.”
In addition to his executive actions, he called upon Congress to pass new gun legislation, like bills that would eliminate exemptions from background check requirements for firearms purchases. He also called for a new ban on so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
In the Rose Garden, Biden called out to parents of children killed in school shootings, who were present at the speech and have become advocates for stricter gun laws. They included Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in Parkland, and Mark and Jackie Barden, whose son Daniel was killed in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
“They know what it’s like when seconds change your lives forever...They know what it’s like to bury a piece of your soul deep in the earth,” Biden said.
Several families and survivors affected by school shootings supported Biden as a presidential candidate, and they’ve since pushed him to include the issue in his most immediate legislative priorities, alongside pandemic relief and a $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Those efforts gained fresh momentum following recent mass shootings at a grocery story in Boulder, Colo., and at massage businesses in Atlanta.
Efforts to pass federal gun legislation have failed in recent years. They include a push to pass new gun measures after 26 people, 20 of them young children, were killed in Newton. As vice president, Biden helped lead the response to that shooting.
“We’ve got a long way to go, it seems like we always have a long way to go,” Biden said Thursday, standing alongside Vice President Kamala Harris and Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it’s an international embarrassment.”
Executive actions seen as a first step
Biden’s executive actions, which he pitched as a prelude to congressional action, include rules from the Justice Department on gun modifications and so-called “ghost guns,” which are made from separately sold parts and are untraceable by law enforcement. He nominated David Chipman, who has worked with gun violence prevention organizations, to lead the Bureau of Alchohol Tobacco and Firearms, which hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed leader since 2015.
Biden also directed federal agencies to make changes to 26 existing programs to prioritize violence prevention efforts, many of which involve youth. Many of those efforts focus on supporting mental health and emotional well-being, a key focus of school safety advocates.
Those include several actions by the Education Department, outlined in a White House fact sheet a few hours before the president’s speech:
- The agency will issue guidance on how Student Support and Academic Enrichment funds and grants provided through the 21st Century Learning Centers program can be used “to support children affected by trauma and disconnected youth.”
- The Education Department will launch a new, $11 million round of grants through the Project Prevent program, which funds schools’ violence prevention strategies.
- The Education Department will add community violence prevention efforts as discretionary priorities to two existing programs: the Full Service Community Schools program and Promise Neighborhoods grants, which encourage inter-agency efforts to support children in low-income neighborhoods.
Additionally, the Justice Department will prioritize community violence intervention in its School Violence Prevention Program, which provides grants to pay for equipment and programs that address school violence.
“Applicants that have experienced high rates of gun violence will receive priority, with an emphasis on wraparound services for students most likely to engage in or be victimized by gun violence,” the White House said.
The push for red flag laws
School shootings are statistically rare, and researchers cite federal data to suggest schools are actually quite safe.
But several of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings have taken place in schools, and the emotionally impactful nature of such events often puts them front and center in debates over gun laws.
Some families affected by school shootings have spoken against new gun restrictions or chosen instead to focus on efforts to “harden schools” through additional physical security measures and the presence of armed law enforcement.
Former President Donald Trump made such efforts a focus in his response to the Parkland shooting. In an overlap with Biden’s efforts, Trump also pressed for states to adopt red flag laws.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have red flag laws, otherwise known as extreme risk protection orders, according to Giffords, an organization that advocates for tougher gun laws.
Using varying criteria, those laws allow family members, law enforcement, and, in some cases, mental health providers to petition a judge to suspend an individual’s ability to possess and purchase guns if they are deemed a risk to themselves and others.
Such laws, like one passed by Florida’s legislature less than a month after the Parkland shooting, have been credited with thwarting would-be attackers. Researchers who study school shootings note that attackers often “leak” warning signs of their violent intentions to family and friends beforehand.
But some gun rights groups have raised concerns about due process rights for those who are reported under such laws and whether criteria for enacting the orders are clear and consistently applied.
Biden called for a federal red flag law Thursday, and he directed the Justice Department to create a model law that could help more states enact similar policies.
Any legislation would face a steep climb in Congress, even with Democratic majorities in both chambers.
The House passed two bills last month related to background check requirements. But those measures are expected to face resistance in the Senate, especially under current rules, which require approval from 60 senators to bring an issue to a vote.