In a week when Congress debated the second impeachment of a former president, and the current president remained laser-focused on a pandemic and the ongoing recession, President Biden’s top domestic policy adviser turned her attention to gun violence. On Wednesday, Susan Rice and White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond met virtually with leaders of some of the nation’s largest gun violence prevention groups, including Giffords, Brady, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Moms Demand Action. On Thursday, Rice held a listening session with the families of the victims of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which marks its third anniversary this Saturday.
These early meetings were a welcome sign of progress for gun control advocates, who had begun to fret that COVID-19 had pushed their issue far down the administration’s to-do list. But to some, the meetings seemed tone-deaf. None of the White House’s early invites were extended to the leaders of Black-led gun violence prevention groups who focus on addressing everyday gun violence—even as an alarming spike in shooting deaths has devastated communities of color during the pandemic. “The hegemony of white-led gun [control] groups in this movement is racist,” says Mike McBride, a Black pastor who helps direct the organizing network Faith in Action and is a national leader in the movement to address urban violence with public health approaches. “The reality that the Biden administration would convene a meeting on gun violence without any of us there, knowing the unfortunate rise of gun-related shootings and deaths in Black communities in the age of COVID, is troubling.”
Some activists believe Biden’s team is making more of an effort than past administrations to address urban shootings; ahead of his inauguration, his team tapped Amber Goodwin, who leads a group focused on gun violence in communities of color, to coordinate policy-focused calls with activists. Biden spokesperson Michael Gwin said in a statement that “[t]he administration will continue in the coming days to engage with, and consult, a wide cross-section of groups working to end gun violence” and promised the “White House is going to build a broad coalition of support to get it done.” But the tension over this week’s meetings speaks to the demands that the gun violence prevention movement has placed on Biden—demands to be more inclusive and prioritize ending Black deaths as much as white ones.
very different from the ones Biden navigated as Obama’s vice president when he tried to pass gun control in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. At the time, Black activists, including McBride, criticized Biden for focusing too much on white kids dying in school shootings and not nearly enough on Black kids dying from gang-related shootings. In the intervening years, the movement has broadened its lens, and Biden’s campaign signaled it had, too. And though the White House has yet to take action on its promised gun control agenda, activists remain cautiously optimistic that the Biden administration will fight against gun violence in all its forms.
Biden’s record of championing stricter gun laws spans three decades, something he’d often tout on the campaign trail with some variation of this sound bite: “I’ve taken on the [National Rifle Association] and beaten them—twice.” In the mid-1990s, then-Sen. Biden led his chamber to pass bills that established the federal background check system and a temporary 10-year ban on assault weapons. Both victories had been won at a time when siding with the NRA was a bipartisan affair—and achieved only by uniting Democrats and Republicans against “criminals,” the era’s common enemy. Case in point: The assault weapons ban was passed as part of the 1994 crime bill that is now blamed for contributing to America’s mass incarceration crisis.
Those political dynamics followed Biden to the second term of his vice presidency as he directed the White House’s response to the Sandy Hook tragedy. Biden’s effort was led by his chief of staff, Bruce Reed, a former Clinton domestic policy adviser whose qualifications for the project, according to the White House’s website, included his work in crafting the 1994 crime bill that helped “law enforcement bring down the rate of violent crime in America.” As the vice president’s office considered policy proposals, it invited police officers, firearms retailers, and even the NRA into the White House to weigh in. Civil rights organizations received minimal attention from the White House, according to people involved with the negotiations at the time. To address the everyday urban gun violence, President Obama recommended cities hire more police.
Biden tried to strike a bipartisan deal on expanded background checks. This time, the NRA beat him: The measure failed in a filibuster as four Senate Democrats sided with their Republican colleagues to kill it. But from its failure sprang a drastic political realignment—one fueled by suburban voters’ desires to see Congress enact tougher gun measures and Democrats’ willingness to embrace them. Support for measures like universal background checks has grown over the last decade: Nearly 60 percent of all voters—and 85 percent of Democratic voters—support stricter gun laws, according to a November 2020 Gallup poll. None of the Democrats serving in Congress today have an “A” rating from the NRA, down from a quarter of them back in 2010. “It’s led to an NRA and a gun lobby that’s weakened—we’re winning the political argument,” says Peter Ambler, the executive director of gun violence prevention group Giffords. “There’s nothing more popular and unifying than universal background checks.”