What Ideas Are in Play in the Latest U.S. Gun Debate?

Mass shootings in Atlanta and in Boulder, Colorado, are an early test of what President Joe Biden and fellow Democrats in the U.S. Congress can do about gun violence. Even before the recent shootings, Democratic lawmakers had begun advancing legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers and extending the time the FBI has to vet prospective gun buyers. Those were among the initiatives that Biden, who helped pass a landmark gun-control law as a senator, advocated as a candidate for president. Here’s a status report on proposed government actions.

Fund Local Violence Prevention Efforts

Biden pledged on the campaign trail to create a $900 million initiative to steer prospective offenders away from violence. The Justice Department, which already funds local crime-fighting efforts, could carry out a program such as this. Under Obama, the department funded youth gang and gun violence initiatives in 16 cities. The efforts involved law enforcement, residents and faith organizations. Biden advisers Susan Rice and Cedric Richmond met with community violence prevention advocates in mid-February, though the White House has yet to announce concrete actions in this area.

Expand Background Checks

Licensed firearm dealers are required to run criminal background checks on buyers before a sale is completed, but private sellers -- those who sell firearms only occasionally, for example -- don’t need licenses. This discrepancy is often called the “gun-show loophole.” The Democratic-controlled House in March voted to expand background checks to would-be gun buyers on the internet and at gun shows, and also to stop allowing transactions to proceed just because a background check isn’t finished within three days. Though Republicans in the Senate have rejected similar measures, Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey told reporters that he is interested in revisiting his 2013 proposal with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin on expanding background checks to gun shows and online sales -- but not to private exchanges between family members and friends. That’s in line with what Biden proposed as a candidate.

(Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for universal background checks and gun-control measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP.)

Require ‘Red Flag’ Laws

Nineteen states and the district of Columbia have adopted measures known as red flag or extreme risk protection order laws to remove guns from potentially dangerous people. These laws empower family members or law enforcement officers to ask a court to temporarily remove the right to own firearms from people exhibiting violent behavior. A bipartisan group of four senators, led by Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, is pushing legislation that would create a federal grant program to encourage more states to adopt such laws. Biden backed the idea on the campaign trail. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said in recent years that Congress should force, rather than merely encourage, states to adopt such laws.

Ban Certain Firearms

A 1986 law signed by President Ronald Reagan, who had been shot five years earlier, banned most civilians from purchasing newly manufactured automatic weapons. For those made before 1986 and owned by civilians, the law imposed strict rules on transferring them to a new owner. In 1994, Congress created the background-check system and banned new semiautomatic weapons that resemble assault-style weapons. That ban, which gun-control advocates criticized for its loopholes, expired in 2004 without action by Congress to renew it. House Democrats led by Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island are trying again to restrict assault weapons. Biden supported the idea as a candidate and said this time, manufacturers wouldn’t be allowed to skirt the law “by making minor changes that don’t limit the weapon’s lethality.”

Prohibit Large-Capacity Magazines

The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban also prohibited large-capacity magazines, devices that store and feed ammunition, for 10 years. “Large-capacity” was defined as anything holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Since the ban expired in 2004, gun owners have been able to purchase magazines capable of holding 100 rounds of ammunition. Nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws banning large-capacity magazines. Democratic lawmakers led several unsuccessful attempts to reinstate the federal ban, including after the 2017 Las Vegas massacre. Biden said during his presidential campaign that he would sign off on a ban, though there’s little indication any such bill can clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg QuickTake explainer on guns in America.
  • Here’s a summary of what Biden promised as a candidate.
  • All about the 1994 ban on assault-style weapons.
  • A Council on Foreign Relations report comparing gun laws in the U.S. to those in other wealthy democracies.
  • A Library of Congress report summarizing gun control laws in 18 industrialized countries and the European Union.
  • A Congressional Research Service report on federal firearms laws.

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