President Joe Biden on Friday said the establishment of a White House office dedicated to the prevention of gun violence is a tribute to the survivors and activists who have fought for years to bring change in the face of fierce opposition, and predicted that it would kick his administration’s anti-violence efforts into a higher gear.
Speaking at an event to unveil the new project in the White House Rose Garden on 22 September, the president said he was “determined to send a clear message about how important this issue is to me and to the country” by signing an executive order to establish the new office – which will be overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris – to coordinate efforts among administration officials and state and local governments, absent congressional action.
“We’re going to centralise, accelerate, and intensify our work to save more lives more quickly. That’s what this new White House office of gun violence prevention is designed to do,” he said.
He added that the more than 500 mass shootings the US has seen this year is “unacceptable” and “not who we are,” and said that if Congress doesn’t act to stop it, Americans “will need to elect new members of Congress”.
White House staff secretary Stefanie Feldman will serve as the office director, with Greg Jackson, the executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, and Everytown for Gun Safety’s Rob Wilcox joining as deputy directors.
Ms Harris, who spent most of her public service career in law enforcement as a prosecutor before she was elected to the US Senate in 2016, thanked Mr Biden for what she described as “his long standing leadership in the fight to save lives from gun violence” as well as the activists and advocates in the audience “who raised their voices [to] demand change”.
“We agree that in a civil society, the people must be able to shop in a grocery store, walk down the street, or sit peaceful in a classroom and be safe from gun violence. But instead, our nation has been torn apart by the tragedy of it and ... by the fear and trauma ... from gun violence,” said Ms Harris, who added that gun violence disproportionally affects Black and Latino Americans.
Pointing to her experience as a prosecutor who tried gun homicide cases, the vice president said she’d “grieved with parents who have lost a child” and “comforted children who have been traumatised by losing a parent or a sibling”.
“We owe it to them and to those living in fear to act without delay. And on this issue, We do not have a moment to spare nor life to spare,” she said, adding that “solutions do exist” to solve the problem of gun violence.
“It’s a false choice to suggest you don’t have to choose between supporting the Second Amendment or passing reasonable gun safety law,” she said. “his new office we will use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives, and fight for the rights of all people to be safe from fear And to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right”.
US Rep Maxwell Frost of Florida, a freshman congressman who spent years as an anti-violence activist, said Mr Biden’s action would “cement his legacy as one of the fiercest champions of gun violence prevention”.
“When you love somebody, you want them to live free of gun violence. That is what true freedom is. And President Biden wants that same freedom for every American,” he said.
The launch of the new White House office is a sign that Mr Biden intends to keep the prevention of gun violence as a major issue in the coming 2024 election campaign, and his choice of Ms Harris to lead it is an indicator that she remains a major player in both his administration and his re-election efforts.
Although Mr Biden has signed a series of executive actions meant to strengthen enforcement of existing gun laws during his time in office, he has repeatedly warned that those efforts have reached the outer limits of his executive authority with it comes to combatting the proliferation of high-powered weapons and stem the tide of gun violence.
He has made dozens of unanswered pleas to members of Congress to “do something,” including enacting universal background checks for firearm purchases and reinstating a federal ban on military-style rifles that have become the weapon of choice for mass shooters in recent years.
Despite the lack of action from Congress on a renewed assault-style weapons ban or strengthened background check requirements, the new White House will be able to capitalise on one of Mr Biden’s major legislative accomplishments – the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which he signed into law last year.
Mr Biden said that “historic law” would “help save lives” and called it “a really important first step” towards a reinstated ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“If you need 80 shots in a magazine, you shouldn’t own a gun. Because, look, last time we did it, it worked,” he said.
The office will be “turbo-charging implementation” of that law – the first major piece of gun legislation to pass Congress in decades – as well as the president’s other executive actions on gun reform. The office’s work will determine other actions that the White House can take within the president’s authority, according to a senior administration official.
The office also will offer more support to communities impacted by gun violence, an effort that a senior administration official compared to the way FEMA is deployed to areas in the aftermath of other disasters.
President Biden has repeatedly indicated after mass acts of violence that the federal government should be doing more for communities impacted by mass shootings, including addressing the trauma and impacts to mental health in their wake.
Gun violence remains the leading cause of death among children in the US. At least 220 children younger than 11 years old and more than 1,000 children between ages 12 and 17 have died from guns so far this year.
More than 31,000 Americans have died from gun violence in 2023 alone, including more than 17,000 people who died by suicide, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Since the beginning of the Biden administration, the US has seen more than 1,800 mass shootings.
This year, there have been more than 500 mass shootings, including seven within the last week alone, and more than 30 acts of mass murder leaving at least 171 people dead, putting the nation on a faster pace for such massacres than any other year in roughly two decades.
Gun reform advocacy groups have pushed for years to establish a White House office focused exclusively on gun violence prevention, what would be “an important center of gravity” to promote administration efforts and push Congress to strengthen legislation, Giffords executive director Peter Ambler told The Independent.
David Hogg, among the prominent faces of a youth-led movement to combat gun violence, told MSNBC that it is “young people and survivors” who have “made this happen.”
After years of pressure on the Biden administration, “it is finally happening,” he said on Friday. “Because young people made their voices heard and voted, and we have to vote again in 2024. Because this office, if we lose the presidency, if it goes to a Republican, it is most certainly not going to exist anymore.”
Against urgent calls for reform, Republican officials and gun groups have instead steadily pushed for measures to expand access to firearms. The number of states allowing Americans to carry concealed firearms without a permit – a top priority for gun groups – has increased dramatically in recent years, with more than half of US states passing laws to expand that access within just the last decade alone.
About one in 20 US adults – roughly 16 million Americans – own at least one AR-15-style rifle, which has exploded in popularity despite its role in a growing number of lethal mass shootings since a so-called “assault weapons ban” expired in 2004.
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act was enacted in 1994, but Congress repeatedly failed to renew the ban after a series of massacres involving high-powered rifles that were previously impacted by the law.
The president, who was then a senator from Delaware, played a major role in passage of the 1994 legislation as part of that year’s massive anti-crime package enacted by then-President Bill Clinton.
A study from Northwestern University found that the ban prevented 11 public mass shootings within the decade it was in effect. The study also estimates that keeping the ban in place until 2019 would have prevented 30 public shootings that killed 339 and injured 1,139 people.
Last year, the president signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which clarifies licensing requirements for firearms dealers and strengthens background check requirements for gun purchases, including a review of juvenile records for anyone 16 years of age or older who attempts to purchase a firearm.
But the Biden administration’s efforts follow a landmark decision from the US Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority in 2022 that could potentially throw restrictions on firearms into legal jeopardy.
A decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v Bruen states that such restrictions must be rooted in the nation’s “historical tradition” of gun ownership, what critics have blasted as an absurdly high bar to combat a modern crisis.
President Biden, reacting to the decision last year, said it “contradicts both common sense and the constitution, and should deeply trouble us all.”