WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden made a passionate call for tougher gun restrictions Friday, celebrating the one-year anniversary of the first significant piece of federal firearms legislation in nearly three decades but declaring it was only an “important first step.” He urged voters to defeat lawmakers who resist.
“Prayers are fine. They’re important ... but it’s not going to stop it," Biden said, pressing Congress to take more aggressive steps to restrict access to guns. “You have to take action. You have to move. You have to do something.”
“If this Congress refuses to act, we need a new Congress.”
Biden applauded the crowd at a gun safety summit in Connecticut — full of survivors of gun violence and family members of victims — for turning “your pain into purpose” and vowed not to let up on his advocacy for tougher laws.
He spoke on the anniversary of last year's legislation that tightened gun access, signed a few weeks after a gunman took the lives of 19 elementary school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. A decade earlier, 26 children and staff were killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre less than an hour's drive from Hartford.
Last year’s law toughened background checks for the youngest gun buyers, sought to keep firearms from domestic violence offenders and aimed to help states put in place red flag laws that make it easier to take weapons away from people judged to be dangerous.
Biden ticked off several ways that he said the 2022 law had already made an impact.
Stepped-up FBI background checks have blocked more than 200 transactions of attempted purchasers under the age of 21. Prosecutions have increased for unlicensed gun sellers, and new gun trafficking penalties have been charged in more than 100 cases around the country. Prosecutions for those who sell firearms without a license have doubled.
“If this law had been in place a year ago, lives would have been saved,” Biden contended.
He also pointed to provisions that increased funding for mental health services and safety measures as well as the enhanced background checks for buyers under 21. He pushed anew for universal background checks for purchasers and the banning of so-called assault weapons.
Those are part of a 2024 political platform that was all but unthinkable to Democrats as recently as Barack Obama’s term.
Friday's gathering was led by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and major gun safety groups hoping to build on recent gains.
"We actually had it wrong for a long time. We left an opportunity on the table for decades,” Murphy said of the push for gun safety legislation. He said there was an impression after Democratic election losses that dogged the party following passage of a crime bill in the 1990s that voters weren't interested in gun safety and it was a losing issue politically.
“That was just a lie," Murphy said. "But it was a lie the gun lobby did a great job of selling, with some help from Democrats.”
In particular, Biden wants to ban so-called assault weapons, a political term to describe guns most often used in mass shootings with the capacity to kill a lot of people quickly. However, the idea of further action — or unilateral action by the White House — makes some Republicans who voted for the 2022 gun legislation uneasy.
“I’m a little apprehensive,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “I don’t want them writing a rule that basically deviates from what we’ve negotiated or voted on.”
Republican officials in Connecticut were even more critical of the administration, with state Rep. Craig Fishbein accusing the White House of “continued erosion of the rights of law-abiding Connecticut residents” through its gun policies.
Through the law, millions of new dollars have flowed into mental health services for children and schools. On Friday, the departments of Health and Human Services and Education sent a joint letter to governors highlighting resources available to them to help support mental health — in particular if a student has been impacted by gun violence.
“I think there’s no question about it, the passage was a watershed moment,” said John Feinblatt, head of Everytown for Gun Safety. The law “clearly broke a log jam.”
Yet since that bill signing last summer, the tally of mass shootings in the United States has only grown. As of Friday, there have been at least 26 mass killings in the U.S. so far in 2023, leaving at least 131 people dead, not including shooters who died, according to a database maintained by The Associated Press and USA Today in partnership with Northeastern University.
That puts the country on a faster pace for mass killings than in any other year since 2006, according to the database, which defines a mass killing as one in which four or more people are killed, not including the perpetrator, within a 24-hour period.
Firearms are the No. 1 killer of children in the U.S., and so far this year 85 children younger than 11 have died by guns and 491 between the ages of 12 and 17 have died. As of 2020, the firearm mortality rate for those under age 19 is 5.6 per 100,000. The next comparable is Canada, with 0.08 deaths per 100,000.
“Ending gun violence is a moral imperative and a winnable issue,” said Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose 6-year-old daughter, Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, died in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. “I also challenge us to not ignore survivor care because this grief does not go away.”
After his speech in West Hartford, Biden headed to a fundraiser in Greenwich. In the coming days, he will accelerate his campaign travel, making stops in New York, California, Illinois and Maryland before the end of the month.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Seung Min Kim in Washington, and David Collins in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.