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President Joe Biden has taken a set of initial steps to address the problem of gun violence in the US. Image Credit: Reuters

Washington: President Joe Biden, calling gun violence in the United States “an international embarrassment,” took a set of initial steps to address the problem, starting with a crackdown on the proliferation of so-called ghost guns, or firearms assembled from kits.

Acknowledging that more aggressive actions like banning assault weapons, closing background check loopholes and stripping gun manufacturers of their immunity from liability lawsuits would have to wait for action from Congress, he said it was nonetheless vital to do what he could on his own to confront what he called an epidemic of shootings that are killing roughly 100 Americans a day.

“We’ve got a long way to go - it seems like we always have a long way to go,” Biden said during an appearance in the Rose Garden, weeks after two mass shootings, in Georgia and Colorado, left 18 people dead and put the administration under intense pressure from the left to take action.

Far short

While the moves the president announced fall far short of the broad legislative changes long sought by proponents of making it harder to buy guns, especially semi-automatic weapons often used in mass shootings, they addressed narrower issues also of intense concern to many Democrats and supporters of gun regulations.

The most substantive of the steps was directing the Justice Department to curb the spread of ghost guns. Kits for these guns can be bought without background checks and allow a gun to be assembled from pieces with no serial numbers.

Biden said he wanted the department to issue a regulation within a month to require that the components in the kits have serial numbers that would allow them to be traced and that the weapons be legally classified as firearms, with the buyers subjected to background checks.

“I want to see these kits treated as firearms under the Gun Control Act,” the president said.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimated that 10,000 ghost guns were recovered by law enforcement in 2019. Cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Diego have seen significant increases in the number of such guns recovered each year since then.

Ghost guns, experts said, have become particularly appealing to criminal organizations and right-wing extremists who want access to untraceable firearms that do not require any background checks. They are often linked to shootings in states like California that have instituted strict gun laws.

Tighter laws

The focus on ghost guns also underscored the White House’s intent to address gun violence broadly and not just the mass shootings that get widespread news coverage.

“Ghost guns are disproportionately impacting gun violence in communities of color and undermining states with strong gun laws,” said Christian Heyne, the vice president of policy at Brady: United Against Gun Violence, a prominent proponent of tighter gun laws.

Ghost guns have also been used in some mass shootings, including one in 2013 at Santa Monica College, in California, in which five people were killed; one in 2017 in Northern California, in which a gunman killed his wife and four others; and one in 2019 at a California high school, in which a 16-year-old killed two students and injured three others.

Even a modest step like addressing the issue of ghost guns, which have been in circulation for years, shows how paralyzed the politics surrounding gun control have become.

Despite the National Rifle Association’s financial troubles, the group’s lobbying presence remains formidable and the gun movement’s hold on the Republican Party unshaken. Action on key gun issues - universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons, for example - remains stalled because of the narrow partisan divide in the Senate and the 60-vote requirement imposed by the filibuster.