Washington on Gun Control: Here’s What’s Happening

President Biden is moving ahead with several narrow executive actions, and there are new negotiations on Capitol Hill for an expansion of background checks.,

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The White House rejects calls for a gun ‘czar’ after the massacre in Indianapolis.

Mourners gathered on March 21 at the Gold Spa to pray for the victims of a shooting in Atlanta.
Mourners gathered on March 21 at the Gold Spa to pray for the victims of a shooting in Atlanta.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
  • April 16, 2021, 11:08 a.m. ET

The White House on Friday rejected suggestions President Biden appoint a gun czar, and urged progressive groups to pressure Republicans instead of pushing the president, as the administration scrambles to respond to a wave of mass gun killings.

Mr. Biden does not see a need to appoint a special director to lead his efforts on guns, as he has done on the climate crisis, and believes the main impediment for addressing the crisis rests with congressional Republicans, his spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

“I would say that advocates should pressure Republicans in the Senate, that all of you should pressure Republicans in the Senate and ask them why they are opposing universal background checks,” she said after a reporter suggested Mr. Biden was “passing the buck” by blaming Republicans.

On Thursday night, eight people were killed after a gunman opened fire inside a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis, less than a month after mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder — and near the anniversary of another atrocity.

“There is no question that this violence must end,” Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters in Washington on Friday, saying Mr. Biden would have more to add later when he hosts a news conference with the prime minister of Japan.

Despite the apparent gridlock, there are signs, albeit modest and tentative ones, that things might be changing.

Mr. Biden, under intense pressure from advocates, is moving ahead with several narrow executive actions, and there are new negotiations on Capitol Hill for an expansion of background checks — aided by the financial collapse of the National Rifle Association,

Among the most consequential actions so far is a personnel move: Mr. Biden has tapped David Chipman, a former federal law enforcement official, to be the new head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a battered agency tasked with enforcing existing federal gun laws and executive actions.

Over the years, N.R.A.-allied lawmakers have handcuffed the A.T.F. with the tightest restrictions imposed on any federal law enforcement agency, even banning the bureau from making gun tracing records searchable by computer.

The agency has been without a full-time director for much of the last 25 years because N.R.A.-allied senators have quashed nominations, by Republican and Democratic administrations, arguing that a strong agency leader threatens the Second Amendment.

Mr. Chipman is an unapologetic proponent of expanding background checks, again banning assault weapons and unshackling A.T.F. inspectors.

But White House officials are hopeful he can garner as many as 52 votes given the current disgust over the recent shootings. Senator Joe Manchin III, the most conservative Democrat on guns, has expressed tentative support, and two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, are open to the pick, according to Senate Republican aides with knowledge of their thinking.

Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both of Connecticut, have been reaching out to Republicans in hopes of passing a narrower background check bill than the universal-checks measure passed by House Democrats earlier this year. Background checks are extremely popular in national polls.

The most powerful internal proponent of gun control is turning out to be Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, whose support for Mr. Chipman was a critical factor in his nomination, according to several people familiar with the situation who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Mr. Biden, adopting a tone of disgust and frustration, unveiled two relatively modest executive actions last week — a 60-day review of homemade, unregistered “ghost guns” likely to lead to a ban, and the elimination of arm braces used to turn pistols into short-barreled rifles, a proposal rejected by the Trump administration.

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