WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday declared himself powerless to respond to the scourge of gun violence in America, a remarkably blunt admission one day after an assailant killed six people, including three children, at a school in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I have gone the full extent of my executive authority to do, on my own, anything about guns,” Biden told reporters, responding to questions about what actions he could take to prevent mass shootings.
It was a stark and surprising statement by the president, who essentially threw up his hands in the face of one of the most intractable problems facing American society.
While the political system has remained all but deadlocked for more than a decade on major changes to gun laws — despite one horrifying shooting after another — Biden sought to shift the burden to the senators and representatives who have so far refused to act.
Even with majorities in both houses of Congress during Biden’s first two years in office, Democrats were unable to pass an assault weapons ban, and any effort now is almost certain to fail in the Republican-controlled House.
Biden rejected questions about whether he could, or should, do more through executive actions, such as trying to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or addressing mental health issues that are often viewed as the cause of mass shootings.
“The Congress has to act,” Biden told reporters as he headed for an economic event at a North Carolina semiconductor plant. “The majority of the American people think having assault weapons is bizarre; it’s a crazy idea. They’re against that. And so, I think the Congress should be passing the assault weapons ban.”
To be clear, he said, “I can’t do anything except plead with the Congress to act reasonably.”
Speaking later at the event in North Carolina, Biden did just that, urging Congress to ban assault weapons and saying that they should try to keep “weapons of war” out of the hands of people who could use them to kill children and others.
“People say, ‘Why do I keep saying this if it’s not happening?’” the president said. “Because I want you to know who isn’t doing it. Who isn’t helping. To put pressure on them.”
He added that there was “a moral price to pay for inaction.”
But there was no sign that congressional action was imminent — far from it.
On Tuesday, as Democrats renewed their calls for passing gun safety legislation, Republicans made it clear they were not willing to budge from their opposition to assault weapons bans and other aggressive measures.
“With respect to any discussion of legislation, it’s premature,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., citing an “ongoing investigation” and the need to collect more facts.
Other members of his party went further, seizing on the gender of the assailant, who authorities said identified as transgender, as a way to shift the conversation away from gun safety measures. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, said in a post on Twitter that the tragedy suggested that “giving into these ideas” about accepting transgender people was “dangerous.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., highlighted questions about the shooter’s gender identity, which she said meant that “everyone can stop blaming guns now.”
Quinton Lucas, the chair of the criminal justice committee at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the president’s comments echo the deep frustration among many Americans.
“It’s not so much disappointing or surprising, perhaps, that the president says that,” said Lucas, who is the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s just telling of where we are right now in America that the president says that and each person just shakes their head and says, ‘yeah, that’s right.’”
Lucas said he and his colleagues often talk about how to manage school shootings — making the assumption they are inevitable in their communities.
“I feel like we’ve given up,” he said.
Mark K. Updegrove, a presidential historian, said Biden’s blunt comments about the limits of his power are not unlike the kind of private assessment that Lyndon Baines Johnson once gave to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in private about his lack of power to pass voting rights legislation.
According to Updegrove, Johnson told King flatly in 1964 that he didn’t have the power to get the bill through Congress.
In Biden’s case, the frank acknowledgment was public, not private. Updegrove said it struck him as a way for the president to put additional pressure on Congress.
“That’s the right message to send,” said Updegrove, the president of the LBJ Foundation in Austin, Texas. “‘I’m doing everything I can for gun reform. I’ve already done the extent I can do. It’s incumbent on Congress to act.’”
Biden reminded reporters Tuesday that as a senator he led the successful effort in 1994 to pass a ban on assault weapons as a way to reduce the use of “weapons of war” in shootings at schools, shopping malls and elsewhere. The ban stayed in place until Congress let it lapse 10 years later.
Since then, however, Washington has refused to reinstate the ban, and has largely failed to pass significant new restrictions on the sale, manufacture or distribution of firearms. Modest bipartisan legislation passed last year, and signed into law by Biden, offered incentives to local governments to set up red flag laws and made minor changes to background check laws.
The issue of what to do about gun violence in America has been a challenge for presidents for years.
In 2012, President Barack Obama struggled to hold back tears as he reacted to the killing of 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Months later, he responded angrily when the Senate rejected his appeal for universal background checks on all gun sales. Obama called it a “shameful day for Washington.”
“But this effort is not over,” Obama said, echoing the language of presidents before and after him. “I want to make it clear to the American people we can still bring about meaningful changes that reduce gun violence, so long as the American people don’t give up on it. Even without Congress, my administration will keep doing everything it can to protect more of our communities.”
In 2018, after a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump convened a session broadcast on live television and declared: “It would be so beautiful to have one bill that everyone could support. It’s time that a president stepped up.” He later abandoned efforts to pass gun safety legislation in the face of lobbying by conservative lawmakers and the National Rifle Association.
During his first two years in office, Biden has repeatedly promised to use executive power to make progress even as action in Congress remains stalled.
This month in Monterey Park, California, the site of another mass shooting, Biden announced a series of executive actions directing administration officials to do everything possible — without new congressional legislation — to expand background checks and limit the spread of illegal guns.
But he appeared to be concerned that members of Congress could use continued executive actions as an excuse to avoid taking actions of their own.
“Let’s be clear,” Biden said during his remarks in Monterey Park. “None of this absolves Congress from the responsibility of acting to pass universal background checks, eliminate gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability.”
“So let’s finish the job,” he added. “Ban assault weapons. Ban them again. Do it now. Enough. Do something. Do something big.”