Calls to Do ‘More’ Reverberate at Celebration of Bipartisan Gun Bill
WASHINGTON — More than 2,000 people gathered on the South Lawn of the White House Monday morning to celebrate the “real progress” of the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and agreement across the aisle on gun control after years of inaction.
But despite the bright skies and the vibrant setting extending from the South Portico of the White House to the fountain beyond the lawn and the National Mall further still, a shadow still hung over the event.
For some, it was the knowledge that only a week earlier a gunman had opened fire from a rooftop in Highland Park, Illinois, killing seven people at an Independence Day parade; for others, it was signified by the buttons they wore on their summer finery, identifying them as a victims of gun violence or bearing the picture of a loved one struck down in a random act of hatred.
“What we are doing here today is real, it’s vivid, [and] it’s relevant,” President Biden said. “The action we take today is a step designed to make our nation the kind of nation we should be.
“It’s about the most fundamental of things — the lives of our children, of our loved ones,” he continued. “Make no mistake about it, this legislation is real progress, but more has to be done.”
Sitting just a few rows away from the president, Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son Jaoquin was gunned down in the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida, suddenly stirred.
Where others seated in one of the long rows of white lawn chairs briefly stood to snap a cellphone picture of the president, Oliver sought to deliver a message.
“You have to do more,” he shouted, rising to his feet.
“We’ve already gone through this for years and years,” he said.
“Let him speak,” Biden said, as Oliver stepped into the aisle and was greeted by a Secret Service agent.
“You have to open an office in the White House. Name a director,” he could be heard saying just before he was quietly escorted away.
The president responded by saying that “we have one,” referring to his call for a federal office dedicated to gun violence.
Later, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre revealed to reporters that Biden had actually spoken with Oliver shortly before the event.
“I was not part of that meeting so I can’t speak to what they spoke about, but the president understands what loss feels like … and the president agrees with him. As he said in his remarks, he agrees that we need to do more.
“That’s why, in his speech, he called on Congress to pass legislation that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, strengthen background checks, and enact safe storage laws.
“This is something that has been important throughout the president’s career, as vice president, [and] as [a] senator.”
Returning to the subject of Oliver, Jean-Pierre said Biden “knows and understands that he is frustrated and that he’s hurting, and rightfully so. His life was upended when gun violence took his son.”
Oliver wasn’t the only participant to speak, first-hand, on the impact of gun violence.
As one of the morning’s invited speakers, Uvalde, Texas, pediatrician Roy Guerrero reflected on the fact it has been 40 days since the massacre at an elementary school there.
“The makeshift memorial in downtown Uvalde, consisting of wooden crosses, children’s fixtures, candles and colorful ribbons, has been taken down,” he said. “The dried white roses and sun-bleached teddy bears have been taken away and stored.
“What remains is a hollow feeling in our gut as we drive toward the sleepy downtown … a hollow feeling that quickly turns to pain and anger as we sometimes accidentally approach the grounds of the Robb Elementary School, a place no one likes to visit,” he continued.
Guerrero said he was speaking both as a Uvaldian and for the parents and victims of the violence that occured there who are now seeking “truth, transparency and, ultimately, accountability.”
“It has been tough being a pediatrician in a community where children do not want to return to school and where parents don’t want to send them back out of fear that there could be a future attack,” he said.
“I see children, daily, with PTSD and anxiety that’s now leading to depression,” he said. “I spend half my day convincing kids that no one is coming for them and that they are safe. But how do I say that knowing that the various weapons used in the attack are still freely available?”
Like Guerrero, Garnell Whitfield Jr. was dealing with a tragedy that is still an open wound: His 86-year-old mother, Ruth Whitfield, was among the 10 people shot and killed in an attack at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York, on May 14.
“She, like all of the victims that day … went to the only supermarket in our community to simply pick up groceries, believing they were safe, but they were not,” he said.
“The devastating reality is that an individual armed with a weapon of war walked in with cameras rolling and massacred [his victims] in the name of a hateful ideology,” Whitfield said. “My family, our families and our community are devastated. But their intent to divide us and to promulgate further violence within our community has failed miserably.
“For we have instead chosen to love over hate [and] to speak out, rather than stay silent. And to stand with those courageous enough to lead us to the signing of the most impactful gun legislation in over 30 years,” he said.
Whitfield recalled that the president and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden traveled to Buffalo just four days after the murder of his mother and the nine other victims.
“In the midst of our pain, he and the first lady showed up and put their arms around us and promised, not only to see that our immediate needs were met, but that they would work everyday to mitigate the gun violence and the divisiveness that is plaguing our nation.
“We’re truly grateful for this day,” he continued, his thoughts returning to the moment at hand. “But we know that this is only the first step.
“This new law will undoubtedly help and in some cases prevent future tragedies. But there is much more to do,” he added.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed after weeks of closed-door negotiations in the wake of the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde, toughens requirements for young people buying guns, denies firearms to more domestic abusers and helps local authorities temporarily take weapons from people judged to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Much of its $13 billion in spending would be used for bolstering mental health programs and for schools, which have been targeted by shooters in Newtown, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida.
But the compromise bill fell far short of the much tougher bill Biden and congressional Democrats had been seeking, such as a ban on the sale of assault weapons and background checks on all gun-related transactions.
On Monday, Biden stressed what bipartisanship and compromise did achieve.
“Today’s legislation … provides $750 million in crisis intervention and red flag laws, so that a parent, a teacher, a counselor can flag to the court that a child or student or patient is exhibiting violent tendencies, threatening classmates or experiencing suicidal thoughts that makes them a danger to themselves and to others.”
In Fort Hood, Texas, where a 2009 mass shooting left 13 dead and 30 injured, and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, where 17 were killed and 17 wounded in 2018, “red-flag laws could have stopped both those shooters,” Biden said.
The president went on to note the new law requires young people under 21 to undergo enhanced background checks before purchasing a gun, and that it closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole.”
“If you’re convicted of assault against your girlfriend or boy[friend] — you can’t buy a gun. You can’t do it,” Biden said to loud applause.
“This law also includes the first-ever federal law that makes gun trafficking and straw purchases explicit federal crimes,” the president said. “It clarifies who needs to register as a federally licensed gun dealer and run background checks before selling a single weapon. It invests in anti-violence programs that work directly with the communities most at risk for gun crimes.
“And this law also provides vital funding to address the youth mental health crisis in this country — including the trauma experienced by the survivors of gun violence,” he said, adding, “It will not save every life from the epidemic of gun violence, but if this law had been in place years ago, even this last year, lives would have been saved.
“It matters. It matters. But it’s not enough, and we all know that,” Biden said.
Prior to Monday’s event, the Biden administration put out word through social media and other means, asking Americans across the country to text the president their personal stories about their experience with gun violence.
“I received over 2,500 responses in 24 hours. I didn’t get to read them all, but I read some,” the president said.
He then offered a few examples. One came from a 17-year-old, who said, “A school shooting sophomore year shattered every sense of normalcy I’ve ever felt. Almost three years later, I still have nightmares.”
A 40-year-old wrote the president about two friends shot and killed by abusive partners and former partners.
“Someone else wrote to me about a 6-year-old child who was sitting near his father’s coffin, and asking, quote, ‘Why is Daddy in that scary box?’ And saying, ‘Wake up, Daddy. Wake up, Daddy.’ His father had been gunned down.”
“I read these stories and so many others. And I see the statistics. Over 40,000 people died from gunshot wounds last year in the United States, 25,000 by suicide. … and I think, ‘Can this really be the United States of America?’
“Why has it come to this? We all know a lot of the reasons: the gun lobby, gun manufacturers, special interest money, the rise of hyper-partisan tribal politics in [a] country where we don’t debate the issues on the merits and we just rather turn on each other from our corners and attack the other side,” Biden said.
“Regardless, we’re living in a country awash in weapons of war … [firearms] designed as weapons of war to take out an enemy.”
The president repeated his call on Congress to pass a federal ban on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines — or at minimum to require more stringent background checks and training before purchases.
He also said Congress should pass legislation to hold gun owners legally accountable if their weapons are improperly stored and are used to commit violence. He noted that he owns four shotguns and said he keeps them secured at his home.
“We can’t just stand by,” Biden said. “With rights come responsibilities. If you own a weapon, you have a responsibility to secure it and keep it under lock and key.”
“Responsible gun owners agree: No one else should have access to it, so lock it up, have trigger locks. And if you don’t and something bad happens, you should be held responsible,” he said.
Biden signed the bipartisan gun bill into law on June 25, calling it “a historic achievement.”
On Monday, Biden emphasized time and again, this historic achievement was only a start.
“We face, literally, a moral choice in this country — a moral choice with profound, real-world implications,” he said.
“Will we take wise steps to fulfill the responsibility to protect the innocent, and while keeping faith with constitutional rights? Will we match thoughts and prayers with action?
“I say yes,” the president said to robust applause. “And that’s what we’re doing here today.”