President Biden has time and time again called for an assault weapons ban that can’t pass in Congress, but his efforts show that gun control is no longer an issue the Democratic Party is dodging as it did decades ago.
Recent mass shootings that have devastated communities across the U.S. — 600 so far in 2022 — have reinvigorated Biden’s call for an assault weapons ban, even though Congress doesn’t have the Democratic supermajority it needs for a bill to pass.
Still, the issue has evolved into more of a political winner for the party, unlike the early 2000s, when the National Rifle Association targeted Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore and a host of candidates who steered away from highlighting gun control in their campaigns.
“This is always a tricky issue, because it’s so charged politically,” said Ivan Zapien, a former Democratic National Committee official. “During those times and other times, people thought that it was too controversial to go as far as they could on day one.”
The reason for the shift is a mix of public support and politics.
Biden served in the Senate in 1994, when Congress and former President Clinton passed a 10-year ban on assault weapons. But when that expired, Democrats distanced themselves from the gun issue, like during the 2004 presidential election.
The closest Congress came to reinstituting the ban was in 2013, following the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., but that only garnered 40 Senate votes because several Democrats from swing states voted against it.
Biden appears to now see pushing for an assault weapons ban as a good strategy for the party, as evidenced in part by its better-than-expected performance in the midterm elections.
“It’s a Democratic rallying point. … The public actually supports this, so the question isn’t necessarily whether there’s the national support, it’s whether there’s the mechanical route for it to get to the president’s desk,” Zapien said.
Americans have heard Biden plea several times this year following mass shootings for Congress to reinstitute an assault weapons ban, including during a prime-time address after an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May, when he declared: “What the hell’s the matter with us?”
A spate of shootings just before Thanksgiving, including one at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo., caused Biden to reiterate his familiar line: “We need to enact an assault weapons ban to get weapons of war off America’s streets.”
Gun violence isn’t expected to be tackled in the lame-duck session, which marks the final weeks of a narrowly Democratic-controlled Congress before the House flips in January.
After Uvalde, Biden signed a gun violence prevention law, which passed Congress with bipartisan support and tackles issues like red flag laws and curbing “ghost” guns, but no further legislation on the matter is currently in the works.
Biden told reporters last week that he’s “going to try to get rid of assault weapons,” adding that he will move forward once he makes an assessment on the votes he has.
An assault weapons ban would need 60 votes in the Senate to bypass the legislative filibuster, but Democrats will have a maximum of 51 seats in the next Congress if Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) prevails in a tight runoff race next week to keep his seat.
Yet Biden keeps on, even if he knows the numbers aren’t there.
“It’s something that President Biden feels deeply in his heart. He’s one of the original authors of the legislation that passed in the 1990s, it means a lot to him, it’s part of his congressional legacy, it makes sense from a public policy standpoint,” said Jim Kessler, co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way, adding that while the votes obviously won’t be there in a GOP-controlled House, “it’s still worth talking about.”
Kessler also noted the composition of the Senate means that Biden’s call for an assault weapons ban won’t politically hurt Democrats in Congress like it could have decades ago.
“The gun issue does play better for Democrats right now than it did a couple decades ago, but also the geography for Democrats is different now,” he said. “The nation has sorted itself, and there aren’t as many places where Democrats hold seats in states where an assault weapons ban would be unpopular.”
He said that in 2004, Democrats held six of the eight Senate seats in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Nebraska. Now, Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.) is the only Democrat from those states.
Stricter gun laws, even those geared toward curbing assault weapons, also play well with the public.
Polling from June showed that 63 percent of Americans support banning assault weapons, and 8 in 10 were in favor of raising the age to buy an assault weapon to 21 years old. The poll also showed that 84 percent of Democrats favored banning assault weapons.
Scott Mulhauser, former deputy chief of staff to then-Vice President Biden, argued that Biden is simply answering the calls from Americans for solutions to reduce gun violence.
“For a president who has rightfully read the room on what the moment demands time and again, this is another step in that direction — leading the country to where he rightfully believes it should go with allies in Congress rather than lamenting what can’t be done,” said Mulhauser, a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive.
Biden calling for gun control could also be a way to paint Republicans as extreme, a tactic he used ahead of the midterms. Republican lawmakers, in turn, have bashed Biden for wanting to curb the use of assault weapons.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said the AR-15 is her “favorite gun for hunting & home defense” and that banning assault weapons wouldn’t have stopped the Colorado nightclub shooting. She also argued that Biden knows nothing about guns.
Kessler said it makes sense for the White House to highlight that kind of rhetoric from Republicans because “the politics of guns have changed too with the extremism on the right and the amount of gunfire that they own.”
A White House official noted shifts in the political landscape on the matter in the form of the gun bill that passed this year with bipartisan support.
“The President has been pushing to revive an assault weapons ban for a very long time. He has effectively used the bully pulpit to make the case to the public and make this a winning issue, and believes it’s important to continue doing so,” the official said.