President Joe Biden’s campaign is preparing to make gun safety a central issue of his reelection campaign, and that will start with the official approval soon and big rollout of a new executive action to massively expand background checks for gun purchases, multiple aides involved tell CNN.
Long sought by gun safety advocates, the executive action, which Biden set in motion in March, would expand the definition of which gun sellers are required to comply with federal licensing and background check requirements. It is seen by both proponents and opponents as the most that can be done toward establishing universal background checks without new legislation. While it may be approved soon, White House aides are already planning a larger event to officially announce it with the president going into the fall, with more campaign-related events centered on guns likely as well.
The interlocking government and political events heading into the fall – starting with Vice President Kamala Harris’s speech on Friday at the “Gun Sense University” hosted by the Everytown for Gun Safety group – reflect a continuing shift on gun control that Democrats and advocates say they have been tracking in their internal data. The issue, they say, is now mobilizing many voters and has become a litmus test for a growing number of them, including those in the “school shooting generation” of younger voters, or just the many Americans who have grown frustrated with news of frequent mass shootings and gun violence in the streets.
Several people advising the campaign and supporting more focus on guns argue that the issue is, along with abortion, an opening to argue that Republicans are extreme and plays into Biden’s larger campaign theme of an ongoing “battle for the soul of America.”
Every major gun safety group jointly endorsed Biden for reelection this week, and several of their leaders tell CNN they expect to campaign and spend heavily in races from president down to state legislature seats.
Biden knows the assault weapons ban he keeps calling for will never pass in the current Congress. His focus, though, will not just be on the big new executive action – which White House officials have been quietly urging forward in the internal review process – but also on calling attention to the policing and community programs funded through the American Rescue Plan and on the ongoing implementation of the historic bipartisan gun reform bill.
Together, several people involved believe, that will set up a stark contrast as Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, spends part of next year on trial for his part stoking what became the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. He also has a record of his own failure to deliver on initial promises of new gun measures in the wake of the 2018 Parkland school shooting.
Biden is “angrier about the disconnect between where the country is and where Washington is on this issue more than almost any other issue,” said Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who led the Democratic negotiations for the bipartisan gun bill and has stayed in close contact with the president since.
Biden’s feelings are authentic, and tend to come quickly pouring out, Murphy said, but that also comes with a political sensibility.
“He buys the notion that Democrats screwed things up for a long time by being afraid of talking about this issue,” Murphy said. “Many of us believe that this issue can be our ticket back to the House majority and to a big electoral win. And Biden is part of that group.”
Gun safety advocates also have been pressing Biden advisers and other Democrats setting strategy for 2024 to see even another political benefit: they have polling and focus group findings they say shows that reminding voters of Republican resistance to gun control efforts largely negates the Republican polling advantage in talking about a rise in crime.
“If you really want to ask the question, ‘Who’s putting police in harm’s way?’, it’s Republicans who oppose gun safety measures as common sense as background checks,” said John Feinblatt, president of the Everytown for Gun Safety, who has been among the people pointing to these numbers. “The issue wasn’t about defunding the police, the issue was really about harming police. And Republicans have to own that.”
Feinblatt also cited a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from April that showed 54% of Americans say either they or a family member has had direct experience with gun violence.
“Suddenly things that were once commonplace – like going to church or going to school or going to the mall or going to a concert – now you have to do a risk analysis,” Feinblatt said.
The Michael Bloomberg-backed group spent $55 million on gun safety supporting candidates – at this point, almost exclusively Democrats – for a variety of offices in the 2020 cycle, and Feinblatt said to expect more heavy spending in 2024.
Voters are ready for a different kind of conversation on guns, argued Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, whom Biden has called after shooting incidents in his city. In July, he had a long meeting in the West Wing with top aides, pressing them with ideas to do more.
“The president should go out and tout the things that he’s been able to do and the impact, but also tout the things that he can’t do because those folks are standing in the way,” Scott said. “The American people should know whose hands the blood is on – literally – because folks are choosing people’s pockets over American lives, period. We’re at a point now where we cannot allow them to hide in the darkness anymore.”
That’s the kind of argument Harris has already been making, including at a fundraiser in Wisconsin last week.
“We have these feckless, so-called leaders who don’t have the courage to agree that it’s a false choice to say you’re either in favor of the Second Amendment or you want to take everyone’s guns away,” she said. “I’m in favor of the Second Amendment, and we need to pass reasonable gun safety laws.”
Since Barack Obama was president, gun safety advocates have been pushing for the new executive action that Biden is about to announce. Known as the “engaged in the business” rule, it would expand requirements for many who have to date said they were selling only as hobbyists or from their personal collections, requiring them to get dealer licenses and run background checks on potential buyers.
The action, pending a standard internal review since Biden put it in motion in March that White House officials have been nudging along behind the scenes, “cuts to the heart of what we’ve been talking about in the gun safety movement for over a decade,” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence.
More than that, Ambler added, “it connects with voters both left and middle in a very commonsense way, and when communicated right, it is a clear-cut example of the president taking action on gun safety.”
The expected post-Labor Day event White House officials are planning for Biden to officially unveil the rule will be part of an ongoing series. Supportive state legislators will continue to be brought together at the White House, and whether in Washington or out on the road, Biden will be highlighting new gun laws passed on the state level. Other events are being planned to talk up the effects just now being felt as elements from last year’s bipartisan gun law and previous bills he signed that are starting to be implemented.
In private, Biden has already been talking about guns constantly, whether he’s discussing the 45 minutes he spent in the Oval Office with former Rep. Gabby Giffords or getting deep and emotional about why he feels so connected to this issue, the many less famous survivors he has consoled and cried with over the years, and the people he hears on rope lines telling him they’re scared.
“The president has been clear with his team that statements mourning another loss are not enough and we need to act. And the American people are over being a country where this just happens,” said one White House official advising the president on guns, asking for anonymity to describe internal conversations.
A Biden campaign adviser called gun safety “the right combination of a uniquely mobilizing issue and something that we have on our record of accomplishment.”
That includes the money that came from the American Rescue Plan to help fund mental health counselors in schools to have trauma training. Increasing public awareness of red flag laws. Or investments like those in Baltimore, where part of the money was used to fund a mayor’s Office of African American Male Engagement which has helped get people off the street and trained in jobs — and therefore less likely to get involved in crime.
With Biden struggling to get voters to credit him for his record across many issues, Scott said he’s been pushing his fellow mayors to start talking more about how money like that has helped their anti-gun violence efforts.
“At this point, it’s on us and other folks to drum up the support needed for us to value American lives the way they should be, because he shouldn’t have to do this fight alone,” Scott said.
A top Democratic Senate strategist told CNN that guns are likely to be made into an important issue in their races in Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Arizona – all overlapping with presidential battlegrounds.
Meanwhile, House Democrats are weighing how many districts they will lean in to talking about gun control in their races. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Courtney Rice told CNN that already it’s clear that they will try to make this a big issue against incumbent Republicans in Biden-leaning districts in California and New York.
“Gun violence prevention is a crime and public safety issue,” Rice said, adding that Republicans “who have put party loyalty over people can be certain that voters will know about their reckless votes next November.”
More shootings aren’t the only things that could end up influencing the gun debate as the presidential campaign picks up.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court froze a lower court order that would have stopped the Biden administration’s regulation on the untraceable homemade weapons known as ghost guns while other challenges work their way through the system in the months ahead.
Justices have already set the stage for what could be a much bigger move, though, with advocates on both sides of the gun debate preparing for the Supreme Court to rule next spring on United States v. Rahimi, a case which could strike down the government’s ability to block people convicted of domestic violence from buying guns.
If that provision is stripped as many expect, Democrats involved with the planning tell CNN that they are already preparing to cast that as yet another threat to the safety of women, citing figures such as women are much more likely to be killed in domestic violence incidents when guns are involved.
Together, that leaves Democrats raring for a much more out-front position on gun control than they could have ever imagined even 15 years ago, when Obama was caught on a recording complaining privately about people who “cling to their guns” even as he, like every other leader of his party, tried to avoid the topic entirely publicly.
“On immigration and health care and taxes, there’s a Democratic position and a Republican position. On guns, Republicans’ answer is to do nothing,” Murphy said. “So Republicans are exposed on guns because their position is to do nothing and there may be disagreement in the public as to how far you go, but there’s nobody – and especially, likely no swing voters – that think the answer is nothing.”