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At moments like this, there is one word in Joe Biden’s vocabulary that he wishes he could purge: again.
It’s been a constant during his two-plus years as President and his eight as the understudy. Over that time, Biden has repeatedly had to shoehorn again into his preplanned remarks on another subject, to pepper it into hastily called statements from a White House podium or en route to another event.
“You know, the shooter in this situation reportedly had two assault weapons and a pistol—two AK-47,” Biden said Monday afternoon in the White House’s East Room, where he was forced to preface his speech to the Small Business Administration’s summit for women with an update on the school shooting in Nashville that left six dead. “So, I call on Congress, again,” he said, “to pass my assault weapons ban. It’s about time that we begin to make some more progress.”
Progress will be hard to find. Detour, much easier. And Biden knows it. Again isn’t getting shoved in a junk drawer any time soon. School shootings, musical festival massacres, and grocery store slaughters alike have been unable to soften Americans’ hardened sclerosis when it comes to gun rights.
Since taking office in early 2021, there have been more than 50,000 deaths by mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Since January 1, 2021, there have been 1,468 mass shootings—or 1.8 of them each day.
Biden has repeatedly deployed again as a drumbeat in his remarks, a bit of venting and self-flagellation. “I am determined once again to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines,” he said two weeks ago, when visiting a Boys and Girls Club site in Monterey Bay, Calif. Back in January, he was hammering the point, too: “We’re going to ban assault weapons again. I did it once as a senator. We’re going to do it again.”
Biden was talking about the 1994 Crime Bill, which banned assault weapons for ten years. The votes weren’t there in Congress to renew it in 2004, in large part because many Democrats blame their shellacking in the wake of the bill’s passage—the House had a net 54-seat swing—on Republicans successfully fomenting outrage over the ban and other provisions in the landmark measure.
Even in the earliest days of his presidency, Biden was leaning on again to imply a frustration, an exhaustion, an anger that seldom boils over in public: “Let me say it again: Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it’s an international embarrassment,” Biden said from the Rose Garden in April of 2021, just 78 days into his term. A month later, Biden was again at it, speaking to his first joint sessions of Congress: “We need a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines again. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. We’ve done it before. And it worked.”
Again. It’s a simple word. Most people don’t have much of a hangup on it. It’s one of those throw-away words that pepper daily conversation without too much importance. But, for Biden and those around him, it’s a reminder that despite an unflinching attention to the domestic challenge, he doesn’t exactly have a lot to show for it. The D.C. Brief has written dozens of times about the uphill politics facing Biden and Democrats on gun control. Over the course of my career, I’ve probably written hundreds of pieces about the odds of meaningful changes to gun laws. And, time and time again—that word, again—the verdict is no more favorable to action.
True, the NRA is a shell of its former self, decimated by management and financial crises. Its political operation is a shadow of its once giant stature, yet it still commands fear in lawmakers, especially Republicans who know even the slightest deviation from all-guns-are-to-be-defended orthodoxy. In the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, shooting that left 19 students and two educators dead, Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota was blunt when asked what voters would do if he considered any real check on guns: “Most would probably throw me out of office.”
It’s brutal, but true. Americans overwhelmingly support specific tightened controls on guns, with even the least popular restriction—a ban on assault-style weapons—still logging 63% support among all Americans, according to Pew. The same survey found 81% support for background checks and 87% supported limits in the name of mental health with all Americans.
But Americans are deeply divided, and the broad notion of “gun control” is a clunker. A staggering 45% of homes in America have at least one gun, so this is personal. In last year’s midterm elections, support for stricter gun laws found support among 56% of voters, according to exit polls; 76% of Democrats agreed, while 88% of Republicans did not. To think consensus is waiting in the wings is a foolish use of optimism, especially in a mightily divided Official Washington.
Republicans with and without weapons alike have used gun rights as a stand-in for freedom from government nosiness, and just 37% of them support a ban on assault-style weapons, according to Pew. Republicans are none-too-eager to give Biden any measure of a policy win heading into an expected 2024 re-election campaign. For Biden, who led the efforts to move both policy and public perception on guns during the Obama Administration, the stubborn attitudes have proved personally vexing. The fact that recent Gallup surveys have found support for laws making it tougher to buy guns moving in a direction opposite of Biden’s goals is particularly disturbing.
Safety isn’t inherently a political question, but its perception cannot be discounted. Exit polls last year found Republicans with a net nine-point advantage on the question of which party is to be trusted more on crime. Which is, in part, why Biden is putting so much of his emotional interest in confronting crime and its leading ingredient as he prepares for an announcement that he’s seeking a second term.
Yet again has never been far from the lexicon of Biden’s speechwriters or his own handwritten additions in the margins. For a politician who can sometimes be mistaken for an Irish poet, the fatalism is hard to miss. “I had hoped, when I became President, I would not have to do this again,” Biden said in May of last year, speaking to the nation from the Roosevelt Room on May 24 after another school shooting, that time Uvalde. But Biden did, again, have to comfort a nation that remains both exhausted from the drumbeat of news of mass shootings, yet lacking sufficient interest in doing much to give itself a pause. And there is no reason to think Biden won’t have to use that damned word again.
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