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Biden Has A Long History Working On Gun Legislation


The flags at the White House are still flying at half-staff after two mass shootings in less than a week. During President Biden's first official news conference, he made clear what his top priorities are - the pandemic and infrastructure. And he said gun control legislation may have to wait, despite Biden's outspoken history on the issue. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now. Good morning, Tam.


MARTIN: What did the president say? And perhaps more significantly, what did he not say about gun control legislation yesterday?

KEITH: Yeah, so this came about 45 minutes into the press conference when a reporter asked Biden about specific gun-related measures that he could pursue. So this was his chance to lay out what he wanted to do, what he planned to do. But he didn't really do that.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: All the above - it's a matter of timing.

KEITH: He went on to say that sequencing is a key to a president's success, and he said his next major initiative is infrastructure - broadband, roads, bridges.

MARTIN: I imagine that caught some people off guard because wasn't it just a couple of days ago he was talking about wanting to push new gun control measures?

KEITH: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I thought I had missed something in his remarks. It was such a contrast to what he had said just three days ago when he was delivering this passionate speech, saying action on gun violence is needed now.


BIDEN: I don't need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take commonsense steps that will save the lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act. We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again.

KEITH: But Biden knows better than almost anyone just how difficult that would be. Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the early 1990s, the last time Congress passed significant gun control legislation. And it wasn't easy.


BIDEN: I'm not even angry anymore. I am just frustrated as hell.

KEITH: That was Senator Biden in 1994, in the midst of a lengthy fight with congressional Republicans and the National Rifle Association over the crime bill. It was a huge bill he had been working on for a long time. But one thing in particular was holding it up.


BIDEN: Six years ago, it was guns. Five years ago, it was guns. Four years ago, it was guns. Last night, it was guns.

KEITH: Embedded in the crime bill was a provision to ban a variety of semiautomatic rifles, something Democrats and gun safety advocates had spent years trying to pass. And then at the last minute to get it through, a sunset provision was added, says Kris Brown, president of the group Brady: United Against Gun Violence.

KRIS BROWN: It had not been in any prior draft. I mean, it's a very unusual feature of a law.

KEITH: And after 10 years, the ban lifted. Ever since, Democrats, including Biden, have been trying to get it back and make it stronger. Meanwhile, AR-15s and other similar weapons have become very popular, making Biden's new call for a so-called assault weapons ban even more politically challenging. Brown says Biden was also involved in passing a 1993 law requiring background checks for some gun purchases.

BROWN: It took six years and seven votes, actually, and they had the NRA opposing them every step of the way.

KEITH: But there are loopholes and exceptions, and buying guns over the Internet wasn't even a thing in 1993. A generation and many mass shootings later, that legislation from the '90s still remains. After the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Conn., President Obama tasked his vice president with finding a way to bolster outdated gun laws.


BIDEN: There is nothing that has gone to the heart of the matter more than the visual image people have of little 6-year-old kids riddled - not shot from a stray bullet - riddled, riddled with bullet holes.

KEITH: But as days stretched to weeks, what looked like a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks began falling apart in the Senate. A few days before the vote, Biden saw the writing on the wall.


BIDEN: People say, well, what am I going to say to the NRA? I got a question for you. What are you going to say to those parents? Look them in the eye, and tell them you concluded there's nothing you can do.

KEITH: Biden, in his ceremonial role as president of the Senate, presided over the session where the legislation failed.

MARTIN: I mean it's so interesting, Tam, to hear all that tape of Biden over the decades, talking with great passion about gun control - right? - and taking on the NRA. Yesterday, he didn't show signs of that fight, though. What was the reaction?

KEITH: Yeah, you know, it was if he moved the issue to the back burner, and the reaction was not great. Kris Brown, who we heard earlier from the Brady group, she said she's been working with Biden's people on this issue and really thought that it was a priority for him. She spoke with my colleague Eric Westervelt after the press conference last night and was not happy.

BROWN: What we are looking for from him, to be very clear, is very bold and decisive action. I'm disappointed, I will say, at what I heard from him.

KEITH: So Biden is likely to face a lot of pressure from people like Brown to do more than just infrastructure in the coming days.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.