A view of the U.S. Capitol in February 2012. (Architect of the Capitol)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday urged the U.S. Senate to immediately pass legislation to close loopholes on background checks for guns and to ban assault weapons, following a mass shooting that killed 10 at a Colorado supermarket.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” Biden said. “This is an American issue.”
Biden’s remarks came after deadly gun violence in two states within a week. On March 16, a series of spa shootings left six women of Asian descent dead in Atlanta, as well as two other people.
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The killings are forcing Congress to again wrestle with federal policy on gun control; bills passed by Democrats in the House routinely stall in the Senate amid opposition by Republicans and some Democrats.
Earlier Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke on the floor about the Atlanta tragedy, and the Senate Judiciary Committee held its own hearing on gun violence.
“Every one of us — every one of us — has an obligation to speak out against these hate crimes,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said of Atlanta. “And here in the Senate, we have more than a responsibility than to just speak out, we must take action.”
Federal investigators have said they have not found any evidence that would substantiate federal hate crime charges in their investigation of the suspect in the Atlanta crimes, 21-year-old Aaron Robert Long. But the suspect’s motive is not yet fully known and the shootings have prompted a national debate over anti-Asian harassment and aggression.
Schumer later tweeted that he would bring legislation for universal background checks for guns to the Senate floor.
Biden urged the Senate to pass two House bills that passed that chamber in early March.
One of those bills, H.R. 8, would expand background checks on people wanting to buy or transfer ownership of guns, as well as close the “Charleston loophole,” which allows the sale of a gun to continue even if a background check is not finished if three business days have passed.
Biden added that he knows Congress can ban the use of assault weapons, as he helped pass legislation in 1994 that placed a 10-year ban on the sale of certain semi-automatic weapons for civilians and also prohibited the sale of magazines that could hold 10 or more rounds. Multiple efforts to reinstate the ban have failed.
“We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again,” Biden said. “I got that done when I was a senator. It passed, it was the law for the longest time. And it brought down these mass killings.”
Biden also made similar promises during his campaign, when he pledged to ban the sale of automatic weapons and high capacity magazines. He also said he’d implement a program for owners of semi-automatics to either sell them to the government or register their weapons under the National Firearms Act.
The other bill that Biden urged the Senate to take up would extend the background check review period from three to 10 days. The measure stems from the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., where a white supremacist killed nine Black people at Mother Emanuel AME Church by purchasing guns through the loophole.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said that just as he was tweaking his opening statement on gun violence Monday night, the mass shooting in Boulder was unfolding.
“This hearing, I hope, will open a conversation to reduce gun violence,” Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said. “We won’t solve this crisis with just prosecutions after funerals. We need preventions.”
Police identified the suspect as Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, 21, of Arvada. As of Tuesday morning, he remained in the hospital undergoing treatment for his injuries. He has been charged with 10 counts of murder in the first degree.
At the Judiciary hearing, the ranking member, Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said that he hopes the Senate can come up with bipartisan solutions.
“I’ve taken a few lessons from these terrible events,” he said. “The first is that we can’t reduce violence in our communities without a professional, well-trained, and fully funded police force.”
Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, said, “We’re still reeling in Georgia, after the attacks on three Asian-owned small businesses took eight lives last week. And there’s also a broader increase in violence across our society over the last year. In particular, two weekends within the last month, Atlanta, Georgia, saw more than 12 shot each weekend.”
One of the witnesses at the committee hearing, Robin Brule of New Mexico, said she was in favor of strong background checks for guns, because her mother’s killers were able to purchase guns without waiting for a background check.
“If a strong background check law was in place, I could be having breakfast with my mother instead of appearing before your committee,” she said.
Brule added that she herself is a gun owner, and believes that common sense legislation, such as background checks, are needed.
Colorado Democratic Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet said in statements that a national conversation on reducing gun violence needs to happen, along with passing bipartisan gun legislation.
“It’s long past time for Congress to take meaningful action to keep deadly weapons out of the wrong hands,” Bennet said.
Hickenlooper said that Colorado has suffered several mass shootings, including at Columbine High School, where 15 people were killed, as well as the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora where 12 people were killed.
“More needs to be done to prevent dangerous weapons from falling into the wrong hands,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
But any legislation to close loopholes on gun background checks will face a steep climb in the Senate, where Democrats would need 60 votes to advance legislation under the chamber’s filibuster rules.
In addition, a moderate Democrat whose vote would be needed, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voiced his disapproval of the House bills. He argued that a background check should not be needed to transfer ownership or sell a gun to a family member or friend.
Manchin, according to Capitol Hill pool reports, said Tuesday that background checks should apply to commercial transactions but not transactions among family or friends. “Commercial, you don’t know a person. If I know a person, no.”
Manchin has teamed up with Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, to sponsor legislation on background checks that would ease requirements for known buyers, such as family and friends.
“Well, I still support background checks on commercial sales and you know, we’re having preliminary conversations and I hope we can get something across the goal line but you know, it’s very difficult,” Toomey said Tuesday, according to Capitol Hill pool reports.
He added that he doesn’t believe that H.R. 8 will pass the Senate.
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