Biden to take executive actions to reduce gun violence

President Biden, making his first foray into efforts to control gun violence since taking office, plans to announce Thursday an effort to limit so-called ghost guns — weapons sold without serial numbers or other identifying information — and nominate a figure from a major gun-control group as director of the federal agency that regulates firearms.

The executive actions come as some activists in anti-violence groups have expressed disappointment with the administration for appearing to put gun regulation behind other priorities, including the COVID-19 relief bill and Biden’s recently announced $2 trillion infrastructure proposal.

The administration’s moves, which Biden plans to announce at an event with Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland, are relatively limited in scope, but mark a sharp shift in course from the Trump administration, which consistently deferred to the National Rifle Assn. and other gun-rights groups and opposed measures to expand gun regulation.

A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on Wednesday noted that moves are “an initial set of actions the administration is taking to address gun violence” and that further steps could come later. The official spoke under ground rules that don’t allow identification by name.

The most concrete of Biden’s proposals will be new federal rules aimed at ghost guns, kits that purchasers can assemble into weapons with relative ease and a few basic tools. The kits are not classified as firearms, which means a person can buy them without a background check and they can be sold without the identification stamps required for guns.

The number of such sales has grown rapidly in recent years, and ghost guns have increasingly been showing up at crime scenes. Law enforcement officials in California have estimated that roughly 3 in 10 guns recovered from crimes in the state are ghost weapons. In February, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer filed suit against a Nevada-based seller of such kits, saying that “untraceable ghost guns are the emerging weapon of choice for criminals” in Los Angeles and other major cities.

Under Biden’s plan, the Justice Department will propose a new rule within 30 days that would require background checks for purchases of ghost guns, according to the senior administration official. The rule likely would involve reclassifying the kits as firearms for the purposes of federal law.

Because the proposal will require new federal regulations, however, it will have to go through a lengthy period of public comment before it can fully take effect, meaning the new restrictions would be unlikely to limit sales until late this year at the earliest.

The administration will also step up funding of efforts to reduce urban gun violence, which has spiked in several cities over the past year.

Biden has proposed $5 billion over the next eight years for “community violence interventions,” a term that covers a range of programs designed to deter violence using tools other than putting people in prison. Those can include conflict intervention, connecting people with social service agencies and working with shooting victims while they are hospitalized in hopes of avoiding retaliatory attacks.

Such programs have had a significant impact in reducing homicides where they’ve been tried, White House officials said.

While waiting for Congress to act on the $5 billion request, the administration will direct more than two dozen federal agencies to look at existing accounts to find money that can be used to support such programs.

The administration’s steps drew praise from gun safety groups.

The actions will “begin to make good on President Biden’s promise to be the strongest gun safety president in history,” John Feinblatt, the head of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement. “In particular, ghost guns allow anyone, anywhere to easily obtain an untraceable firearm, and the Biden administration’s decision to treat them like the deadly weapons they are will undoubtedly save countless lives.”

Biden will also name David Chipman as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency that regulates guns and gun sales. Chipman, who spent some two decades as an ATF agent, is currently a senior policy advisor to Giffords, the advocacy group set up by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona after she was shot and severely wounded at a campaign event.

“There is no one better to lead ATF right now,” the senior administration official said, citing Chipman’s experience with the agency.

Giffords Law Center Senior Policy Advisor David Chipman speaks at a 2019 House Judiciary Committee hearing on assault weapons. The Biden administration plans to nominate Chipman, a former federal agent, to be director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.


Since 2006, when Congress directed that the head of ATF be subject to Senate confirmation, the NRA and other gun-rights groups have consistently worked to block nominees. The last Senate-confirmed head of the agency, B. Todd Jones, who was named by President Obama, stepped down in 2015, and acting directors have run the agency since, limiting its ability to pursue new programs.

Chipman’s extensive contacts with the groups that advocate greater regulation of firearms could assuage some of the complaints that the administration has been slow to move on gun issues.

Those complaints mounted after Biden’s news conference late last month, at which he said that “successful presidents, better than me, have been successful, in large part, because they know how to time what they’re doing — order it, decide and prioritize what needs to be done.”

Asked about gun control, immigration and other issues, Biden said that “the most urgent problem” was the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic dislocation it had caused.

“The other problems we’re talking about, from immigration to guns and the other things you mentioned, are long-term problems; they’ve been around a long time,” he said.

Through much of his career, Biden has been active on gun control efforts, often boasting of his role in beating the NRA in legislative battles during the Clinton administration, when he was a senator. As vice president under Obama, he took a role in helping craft gun control proposals, most of which stalled on Capitol Hill. But since taking office as president, he’s focused heavily on other issues.

Although the House last month passed two bills to close loopholes in the federal background check program, opposition in the Senate has stalled any action. The Senate could take up a more limited bill later this spring that would close one loophole — requiring background checks for weapons sold at gun shows — but even that faces a difficult legislative road.

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