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Biden vows to ‘do more’ to end gun violence but rejects calls to appoint a czar

The flag above the White House flew at half staff Friday in honor of the Indianapolis shooting victims.
The flag above the White House flew at half staff Friday in honor of the Indianapolis shooting victims.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden pledged to “do more” to address gun violence and implored Congress to act after a mass shooting in Indianapolis left eight people dead. But his administration, scrambling to respond to a new cycle of violence, rejected calls to appoint a gun czar to more forcefully confront the crisis.

At a news conference Friday with the Japanese prime minister, Biden called gun violence across the country “a national embarrassment” and urged Senate Republicans to allow a vote on a gun control bill that has already passed the House.

“This has to end,” he said. “Who in God’s name needs a weapon that can hold 100 rounds or 40 rounds or 20 rounds? It’s just wrong.”

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In an earlier statement, Biden said he had been briefed on the attack in Indianapolis on Thursday, in which “a lone gunman murdered eight people and wounded several more in the dark of night.” He ordered flags lowered to half-staff just two weeks after he had given a similar directive in response to massacres in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado.

“Gun violence is an epidemic in America,” he said. “But we should not accept it. We must act. We can, and must, do more to act and to save lives. God bless the eight fellow Americans we lost in Indianapolis and their loved ones, and we pray for the wounded for their recovery.”

His press secretary, Jen Psaki, rejected suggestions that Biden appoint a gun czar, similar to the position he created to address the climate crisis. The White House argued that the main impediment to addressing the crisis was congressional Republicans, not a lack of will in the West Wing.

“I would say that advocates should pressure Republicans in the Senate, that all of you should pressure Republicans in the Senate and ask them why they are opposing universal background checks,” Psaki said after a reporter suggested that Biden was “passing the buck” by blaming Republicans.

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Despite the apparent gridlock, there are signs that things might be changing.

Biden is moving ahead with several narrow executive actions, and there are new negotiations on Capitol Hill for an expansion of background checks — aided by the financial collapse of the National Rifle Association.

Among the most consequential actions so far is a personnel move: Biden has chosen David Chipman, a former federal law enforcement official, to be the new head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a battered agency tasked with enforcing existing federal gun laws and executive actions.

Over the years, NRA-allied lawmakers have handcuffed the ATF with the tightest restrictions imposed on any federal law enforcement agency, even banning the bureau from making gun tracing records searchable by computer.

The agency has been without a full-time director for much of the past 25 years because NRA-allied senators have quashed nominations by both Republican and Democratic administrations, arguing that a strong agency leader threatens the Second Amendment.

Chipman is an unapologetic proponent of expanding background checks, banning assault weapons again and unshackling ATF inspectors.

White House officials are hopeful he can garner as many as 52 votes for confirmation given the disgust over the recent shootings. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the most conservative Democrat on guns, has expressed tentative support, and two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, are open to the pick, according to Senate Republican aides with knowledge of their thinking.

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On a parallel track, a dozen senators in both parties have quietly begun to negotiate a deal to expand background checks for gun purchases — a proposal that enjoys nearly 90% approval nationally in recent polls.

Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both D-Conn., have been reaching out to Republicans in hopes of passing a narrower background check bill than the universal-checks measure passed by House Democrats earlier this year.

Biden, adopting a tone of disgust and frustration, unveiled two relatively modest executive actions last week: a 60-day review of homemade, unregistered “ghost guns” that is likely to lead to a ban, and a measure eliminating arm braces used to turn pistols into short-barreled rifles, a proposal rejected by the Trump administration.

Gun violence in America, he said at the time, was “an international embarrassment.”