SAN DIEGO — The grief is still suffocating, the anger still visceral, President Joe Biden said Tuesday, in this suburban Los Angeles community where a gunman stormed a dance hall and killed 11 in January. He announced fresh federal measures to curb gun violence but emotionally declared there must be more.
“Do something. Do something big,” he implored.
“I’m determined to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines,” Biden told the families of some of the victims who were in the audience for his remarks, along with the 26-year-old who wrestled the semiautomatic pistol away from the gunman.
Biden’s rhetoric has grown ever stronger about guns — he routinely calls for banning assault weapons — in pushing a gun-control platform even tougher than during the Obama administration when he was vice president. He has been emboldened by the midterm elections when his regular talk of gun control didn't result in massive Democratic losses, and he's expected to continue to argue for strong changes as he moves toward a 2024 reelection run, his aides say.
“We remember and mourn today,” Biden said in Monterey Park. “But I’m here with you today to act.”
The president told the crowd he’d signed an executive order aimed at stiffening background checks to buy guns, promoting more secure firearms storage and ensuring law enforcement agencies get more out of a bipartisan gun control law enacted last summer.
But Biden has only limited power to go beyond that legislation that was passed after the killings of 10 shoppers at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store and 19 students and two teachers at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school.
His action on Tuesday does not change government policy. Rather, it directs federal agencies to ensure compliance with existing laws and procedures — a typical feature of executive orders issued by presidents when they confront the limits of their own power to act without cooperation from Congress.
“Let’s be clear, none of this absolves Congress from the responsibility of acting to pass universal background checks, to eliminate gun manufacturers immunity to liability," Biden said.
Using emotion to press Congress to act, he detailied the lives of Monterey Park victims: A dancehall manager who walked patrons to their cars after lessons. An adventurer ready for the next trip abroad. A devoted grandparent.
Biden, whose own familiarity with grief is well known — his small daughter and wife were killed in a car crash in the 1970s and later his adult son died of cancer — touched on the everyday things he said hurt so much after the initial shock is gone; the way a closet still smells like a loved one, the sound of a laugh, the bend of a smile.
The victims in Monterey Park, where 20 were shot after Lunar New Year celebrations, were older Asian Americans, mostly in their 60s and 70s. Biden said they represented a powerful vision of America: “Our diversity is the strength of this nation.”
His order on Tuesday directs the Cabinet to complete a plan to better structure the government to support communities suffering from gun violence. If the Federal Emergency Management Agency can respond to natural disasters to provide on-the-ground support, the government should be able to do the same for a mass shooting, he said. More mental health support for grief and trauma, financial aid for victims and for businesses forced to close during a lengthy police investigations.
He is directing Attorney General Merrick Garland to shore up rules for federally licensed gun dealers so they know they are required to do background checks as part of their licenses.
He is also mandating better reporting of ballistics data from federal law enforcement for a clearinghouse that allows federal, state and local law enforcement to match shell casings to guns. But local and state law enforcement agencies are not required to report ballistics data, and many do not, making the clearinghouse less effective.
And the president is asking the Federal Trade Commission to issue a public report analyzing how gun manufacturers market to minors and use military images to market to the general public.
“President Biden’s executive order today is a home run for public safety,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “This is the latest example of President Biden’s leadership on gun safety, and we’re proud to stand with him as he takes robust action to help close the gun-seller loophole — which will significantly expand background checks on gun sales, keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people and save lives.”
The bill passed last year, known as the Safer Communities Act, is viewed by gun control advocates as a good start but one that doesn't go far enough. After the law was signed, there were 11 other mass shootings, according to a database of mass killings since 2006 maintained by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University. Those killings don't include shootings in which fewer than four people were killed — and gun violence is also rising nationwide.
Pro-gun groups said the order would do little to stop growing gun violence.
“The reality is that nothing in the president’s executive order today would have done anything to prevent the recent mass shootings in California, Michigan or elsewhere,” said Katie Pointer Baney who is the Managing Director of Government Affairs for the U.S. Concealed Carry Association. “It’s time for the president and political leaders across the country to have an honest conversation with the American people and acknowledge there is no legislative fix that will permanently solve the issue of gun violence.”
Biden said he'd direct his Cabinet to make sure law enforcement agencies and citizens, too, understand the benefits of red-flag laws, which are intended to temporarily remove guns from people with potentially violent behavior and prevent them from hurting themselves or others.
“So more parents, teachers and counselors know how to flag for the court that someone is exhibiting violent tendencies, or experiencing suicidal thoughts that make them a danger to themselves and others," he said.
Last month, the Justice Department sent out more than $200 million to help states and the District of Columbia administer red-flag laws and other crisis-intervention programs.
Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.