President Joe Biden on Tuesday called for a federal assault weapons ban and strengthened background checks for firearms sales in the aftermath of a deadly supermarket shooting in Boulder, Colo. — hoisting the contentious issue of gun reform among the White House’s top legislative priorities.
In remarks delivered from the State Dining Room of the executive mansion, Biden demanded that the Senate quickly take action on two bills passed earlier this month by the House, which would expand background checks and close the so-called “Charleston loophole” for gun sales.
But the president went further, arguing for a sweeping prohibition on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines — a ban akin one he helped negotiate as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee more than two-and-a-half decades ago. That 10-year moratorium expired in 2004.
“While we’re still waiting for more information” about the suspected Boulder gunman, Biden said, “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future, and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act.”
“We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again,” he 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. We should do it again.”
With his statement Tuesday, the president joined Colorado lawmakers and other White House officials who insisted that “thoughts and prayers” were insufficient in the aftermath of the Boulder shooting, instead urging the Senate to consider the gun reform legislation the Democrat-controlled House approved just two weeks ago.
“The victims and the survivors of these tragedies are always going to have my thoughts. They’re always going to have my prayers. But my job is to make laws,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) told CNN of the rampage at a crowded King Soopers grocery store Monday afternoon — which killed 10 people, including the first police officer to arrive on the scene.
The necessary response from congressional lawmakers and other federal officials “isn’t rocket science,” Crow said. “We actually know exactly what we need to do. We have been studying this for a long time. There are common-sense laws and legislation that we can pass that will help make our communities safer. We just have to get them done. It’s that simple,” he said.
The tragedy in Boulder is the second high-profile mass shooting in the United States in less than a week, following the series of attacks on three Atlanta-area spas that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent. Both shootings came shortly after the House vote to require background checks on all firearms sales and transfers and to allow an expanded 10-day review for gun purchases.
On Tuesday, Crow argued that the onus was now “on the Senate” to approve those measures and send them to the White House. “We passed some common-sense legislation in the House. President Biden has said he’s looking for common-sense legislation. There are things that he’d be willing to sign into law today if it was put on his desk. It’s sitting in the Senate,” he said.
Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, also addressed the Boulder shooting, telling MSNBC that “the regular sentiment of ‘hearts and prayers’ are not enough” and referring to the two House-passed gun reform bills as “just a step.”
“The good news is that this president has a track record of fighting against the NRA and beating them,” Richmond said. “And we need to make sure that we have sensible gun regulations in this country to ensure safety. And so we need action, not just words and prayers.”
Vice President Kamala Harris described the violence in Boulder as “absolutely baffling” during a swearing-in ceremony for CIA Director William Burns. “It’s tragic. It’s 10 people going about their day, living their lives, not bothering anybody. A police officer who is performing his duties, and with great courage and heroism,” she said.
Justice Department spokesperson Anthony Coley said in a statement that Attorney General Merrick Garland “is actively monitoring the situation” in Boulder after being briefed again on the shooting Tuesday morning, and that the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is “continue to assist local authorities in Colorado.”
“The Department of Justice expresses its deepest sympathies to the families of all of those who lost their lives in this heinous attack, including the family of Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley,” Coley said.
Biden also ordered that flags at the White House be flown at half-staff. He had previously ordered last week that U.S. flags on all government grounds be lowered until Monday in honor of the victims of the Atlanta-area shooting.
“We cannot seem to finish grieving one tragedy before another takes place,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a floor speech, vowing to bring the House’s universal background checks bill for a vote.
At a news conference Tuesday morning, Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold said the 10 victims had been identified and their next of kin notified. She read aloud their names: Denny Stong, 20; Neven Stanisick, 23; Rikki Olds, 25; Tralona Bartkowiak, 49; Suzanne Fountain, 59; Teri Leiker, 51; Eric Talley, 51, the first responding officer; Kevin Mahoney, 61; Lynn Murray, 62; and Jody Waters, 65.
Herold also identified the suspect in custody as 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa and said he had been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder. The suspect, injured in a firefight with police Monday, is being treated at a local hospital and is expected to be transported to the county jail later Tuesday. Law enforcement said the motive for the shooting was still unknown.
“This has been a painful year. And we sit here once again surrounded by seemingly incomprehensible, senseless loss,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said at the briefing. “This is a pain that we need to sit with. We can’t let ourselves ever become numb to the pain, because we simply can’t let this be accepted as anything close to a normal occurrence.”
Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), whose district includes Boulder and the King Soopers where the killings occurred, told reporters that while “there’s a lot still unfolding” as the investigation gets underway, “this cannot be our new normal. We should be able to feel safe in our grocery stores. We should be able to feel safe in our schools, in our movie theaters and in our communities. We need to see a change, because we have lost far too many lives.”
The violence in Boulder came after a relative dearth of mass shootings over the past year amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the killings also represent just the latest in a long line of high-profile shootings to have taken place in Colorado in recent years.
Crow, whose district encompasses many of Denver’s eastern suburbs, noted Tuesday that he “represents a community that has seen multiple mass shootings” — including those at Columbine High School in 1999, an Aurora movie theater in 2012 and STEM School Highlands Ranch in 2019.
“When people think about these places and say those names, they think of those shootings,” Crow said. “I think of those families, those kids, the faces of the parents that I have to console, that I’m going to have to talk to today about this issue. This is a trauma that our community, my community continues to experience. And every time this happens, we get retraumatized. Enough is enough.”
On Monday night, both of Colorado’s U.S. senators issued statements calling for a congressional response to the Boulder shooting. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said “there are steps that the overwhelming majority of Americans want us to take,” and Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) tweeted: “We need federal action. Now.”
The two House gun reform bills approved this month are similar in form to the sweeping legislation Democrats passed in 2019 — shortly after retaking the chamber’s majority in the 2018 midterms — seeking to mandate federal criminal background checks on all firearms sales, including private transactions.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) never advanced that measure. But since the 2020 election, with the White House and the Senate now in Democratic control, reform advocates are hopeful that Congress can finally pass comprehensive solutions to what they characterize as a uniquely American epidemic of gun violence.
Even with a Democratic majority, however, Senate consideration of the House gun reform bills will certainly be complicated by the chamber’s 60-vote filibuster rule, which Biden has shown greater openness to revising in recent weeks as he moves to enact his agenda.
The politics of gun reform in the 21st century have plagued Democrats since at least 2012, when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting prompted former President Barack Obama to push for new federal firearms legislation. But those White House-backed measures were quashed in the Senate, and the subsequent reform efforts of recent years have similarly stagnated.
Biden, who headed the Obama administration’s ultimately unsuccessful gun task force in the wake of Sandy Hook, has repeatedly boasted about his ability to take on the National Rifle Association and win. Indeed, as the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, he helped author the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in the 1994 crime bill.
The crime bill’s ban outlawed the manufacture, transfer and possession of 19 types of military-style assault weapons and expired in 2004 in accordance with its 10-year sunset provision. The ban applied only to firearms manufactured after the measure’s enactment.
Although there is no technical definition of assault weapons, the ban construed the term “semiautomatic assault weapon” to cover 19 specific firearms and copies of those weapons — including AK-47s, Colt AR-15s, TEC-9s and Uzis.
The ban also outlawed certain semi-automatic pistols, rifles and shotguns equipped with at least two enhancements from a specified list, as well as new large-capacity ammunition magazines.
On the 2020 campaign trail, Biden expressed support for a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, universal background checks and the creation of a national firearm registry. Americans broadly favor all of those measures, according to public polling.