Why Biden Can’t Afford to Ignore Gun Safety Advocates

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The video is a vertigo-inducing nightmare but one Manuel Oliver saw as necessary to create and post on the fourth anniversary of his son Joaquin’s death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Standing atop a 150-foot-tall construction crane near the White House, the whipping wind rendering some of his words inaudible, Oliver demanded on Monday that “the whole world will listen to Joaquin today. He has a very important message.”

Oliver then threw a banner with Joaquin Oliver’s face over the crane with a direct message to President Joe Biden: “45k people died from gun violence on your watch.”

That statistic is taking center stage in gun-safety advocates’ recent pivot against Biden. A new project, dubbed the Shock Market, highlights the toll of inaction on gun restrictions since Biden’s Inauguration Day, despite his having run as a candidate who would repeal liability shields for gunmakers, ban the sale of new assault weapons and end online gun sales. Fed up with inaction, dozens of protests, including the no-longer-children Parkland Kids, circled the White House and Capitol on Monday with demands for action, looking to build pressure on an administration that—at least nominally—agrees with them. And while the public events and accompanying press blitz may feel like a gimmick, it’s tough to ignore when combined with a tracking project led by Education Week that shows there were 34 school shootings last year alone, and 102 since 2018.

“Our movement over the last 20 or 30 years has really failed to create public pressure and to hold our friends accountable when they’re in power. It’s created a dynamic where Democrats running for office make all kinds of promises when they need your vote, and then once they’re elected, they turn around and they tell you that things are just too complicated politically,” says Igor Volsky, co-founder and executive director of Guns Down America, a group seeking to reduce gun ownership in the U.S. and co-launched the Shock Market campaign. “There are survivors in our movement who have been waiting for 20 or 30 years after their children and loved ones died.”

Biden ran for President as the most vocally supportive nominee ever of the effort to curb gun violence. The Democrats put guns at the center of the agenda during their virtual nominating convention during the fall. A hallmark of Biden’s messaging was his effort during Barack Obama’s Administration to comfort those killed in such violence and then marshal efforts to combat repeat incidents. He openly taunted the National Rifle Association during a primary debate in Charleston, S.C., just down the block from the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church: “I beat the NRA twice. … If I’m elected, I’m coming for you and gun manufacturers, I’m going to take you on and I’m going to beat you.”

That, put simply, hasn’t happened. When Biden laid out his 100 Day agenda, guns were noticeably absent. Since then, Biden’s record has been, at best, mixed. He has taken steps to curb the spread of so-called “ghost guns,” do-it-yourself weapons that are tough to track because they lack serial numbers. Biden traveled to New York two weeks ago after two police officers were killed by such illegal weapons but his policy papers echoed ideas introduced back in June. He pushed a regulatory change to make gadgets that stabilize pistols, like the one used in the Boulder, Colo., shooting that left 10 dead in March of last year, less easily available. And he signed an executive order promoting safer storage of weapons.

In April of last year, Biden nominated a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as its head, but gun-rights groups summoned opposition and Biden blinked to the political reality that a critic of the bureau was a non-starter for a lot of Senators, regardless of party. He pulled the ATF nomination in September, leaving the post blank and further alienating gun rights advocates who say a Senate-confirmed chief would have the clout to finally get tough on dangerous weapons. Some in the gun-safety groups had hoped Biden might have used the Parkland anniversary this week to name a new pick, but he instead offered a statement of condolences.

“He talked about how he uniquely understands what it’s like to lose children and thus has an emotional connection to the issue. He made repeated promises, not only to survivors like Manny and Patricia Oliver, but to Americans across the country that this will be his priority,” Volsky says. “We are launching this campaign because he’s fallen short of all that.”

To be fair, there are limits to what Biden can do unilaterally. Congress is simply not interested in tackling the issue; the closest Washington has come to a meaningful shift in gun laws was in 2012, after a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn, left 20 children and six adults dead, plus the shooter and his mother. The bipartisan effort to plus-up background checks ultimately collapsed. Six years later, Joaquin Oliver was among the 14 students and three adults killed in Parkland. Another 17 people were shot but survived.

Political calculations on guns are trickier than on other special-interest agendas. No one credibly believes government regulators are coming to confiscate their aerosols to fight climate change. But guns? That paranoia is there after decades—and millions of dollars of political money—stoking fear among gun owners. (ATF didn’t help matters this week when it tweeted that people could create a memorable Valentine’s Day for an ex by reporting an illegal firearm to agents.)

Even so, Biden can’t afford to ignore the waning support of gun safety advocates. It took Charles and David Koch’s deep frustrations with spending under George W. Bush to back a Tea Party-esque challenge to the modern Republican Party. Suburban women inched away from Republicans in 2018 to give Democrats Congress and then helped to put Biden in power. It’s not until there are political costs to ignoring friends that things change.

And that’s what dozens of activists, who spent the four-year Parkland shooting anniversary sprinting from the White House to the Capitol pleading with lawmakers, are hoping for. By the time the elder Oliver voluntarily climbed down from his perch, was taken into custody and released hours later, the number of fatalities from guns had swollen to 47,000 in the Shock Market index. Given America’s long love affair with guns, there’s no reason to think the rate of growth will slow—unless Democrats realize that they could pay a price for inaction.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com