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Biden’s Gun Policy Is Only Half Cocked

Everything Biden put forward on Thursday is about as non-controversial as gun control legislation can get.

Joe Biden talks about gun control regulations
Bloomberg

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced that it would take concrete steps aimed at reducing gun violence, after mass shootings in Boulder and Atlanta took 18 lives in the past few weeks.

Biden’s new policies, likely to come in the form of executive orders in the coming days, will specifically target two aspects of America’s sprawling, dysfunctional relationship with firearms: “ghost guns,” or homemade firearms made without serial numbers, and red flag laws, which seek to remove firearms from the possession of people who will potentially use them for a crime.

Many of these policy changes are necessary steps for any administration that wants to stem the constant tide of gun deaths in this country. But the specific actions the White House laid out on Thursday don’t pack much of a punch.

Gun policy, for decades, has been almost entirely reactionary, with even the most marginal of shifts only happening after the national trauma of a mass shooting. That’s exactly what we’re seeing here: there have been two very well-publicized shootings in less than a month, and the Biden administration desperately needs to appear as if it is doing something. In a public address on Thursday morning, Biden basically admitted this, saying, “I asked the Attorney General and his team to identify for me immediate, concrete actions I could can take now without having to go through the Congress.” This was almost certainly not a priority for the administration until the country got enough news footage of blood on the ground to force some action.

To be fair to the administration, it’s absolutely true that any meaningful shift in federal gun policy will be extremely difficult without congressional buy-in. But let’s look at what Biden’s actual policies will change.

First, ghost guns. Here’s Biden describing them.

These are guns that are homemade, built from a kit that include the directions on how to finish the firearm. You can go buy the kit. They have no serial numbers, so when they show up at a crime scene, they can’t be traced.

And the buyers aren’t required to pass a background check to buy the kit to make the gun. Consequently, anyone — anyone from a criminal to a terrorist can buy this kit and, in as little as 30 minutes, put together a weapon.

This is largely accurate. What it doesn’t mention, however, is that making a decently functioning “ghost gun” usually requires access to and the expertise to use a CNC milling machine, or at the very least a drill press, plus the kit of all the other parts of the gun and various peripherals. This is an enterprise that will almost certainly cost someone thousands of dollars, and considering that in many states you can buy a functional semi-automatic rifle and walk out of the store with it in a matter of minutes, a crackdown on ghost guns isn’t going to disrupt the overall proliferation of arms all that much. Make no mistake: ghost guns are an issue in firearms regulation, and there’s increasing evidence that they’re being bought and sold at a large scale in states like California that have strict gun laws, and disproportionately affecting minority communities.

Biden said that his new policies would generally require these kits to be regulated the same way fully-built firearms are, which, again: ok. The vast majority of highly publicized mass shootings are performed with legally-bought firearms and the vast majority of gun crime is performed with firearms that at one point have gone through a legal sale (often through straw purchases in states with weaker gun laws).

Similarly, Biden announced that he wanted to increase regulations on AR-style weapons outfitted with a pistol brace rather than a traditional stock, a relatively novel loophole that allows people in certain jurisdictions to classify something that looks like a rifle and shoot like a rifle as a pistol. This is an absurd technicality that speaks to the utter incoherency of U.S. gun laws, and literally all that changing it will do is make people who own pistol-brace weapons fill out more paperwork or buy a different part for their weapon. The Colorado shooter used an AR pistol to kill ten people, but he would have been able to kill just as many if his gun was technically called a rifle.

By far the most useful provision that Biden put forward was his desire for a federal red flag law. Red flag laws, in short, give authorities the ability to go to a judge and get a written order (similar to a search warrant or restraining order) to take someone’s firearms if they have a reasonable suspicion that they’ll be used for a crime. Right now, 19 states and D.C. already have some version of a red flag law in place — but without Congress, Biden can’t put a federal one on the table. Instead, his plan only calls for the Justice Department to release a “model” red flag law that states could copy, if they wished. The problem is that currently there are a lot of states who do not wish they had a red flag law. Biden isn’t doing anything to change that.

And here’s the rub, to me. Everything Biden put forward on Thursday is about as non-controversial as gun control legislation can get. The hardline Second Amendment crowd is going to throw a fit if a Democratic politician so much as coughs loud enough to resemble a gun in a speech, but in the grand scheme of things, cracking down on ghost guns and pushing for extended red flag laws is not going to disrupt the most important factor in this entire conversation: gun companies’ bottom line. Banning ghost guns would probably only increase legitimate gun sales; red flag laws only take away guns that people have already paid for. The NRA supports red flag laws! These are not transformational asks.

Taken together, what we have is about what we should expect from a Democratic administration: a piecemeal, largely ineffective strategy against gun violence that avoids systemic causes for that violence. It will also, of course, completely skip over the fact that one of the most deadly perpetrators of gun violence in America is the state itself. From a purely public health standpoint, disarming America’s populace is completely necessary if we want to prevent tens of thousands of deaths a year. But there’s a very strong political argument that doing so unilaterally without also re-examining our militarized police system only reinforces the state’s monopoly on violence, meaning that one way or another, bodies will continue to fall. Checkov had it right all along: if there’s a gun in the scene, it’s going to get used. Nothing Biden has announced so far suggests that he’ll be the one to take it off the wall.