parents of a Sandy Hook school shooting victim advocate for gun safety
Jennifer Hensel and Jeremy Richman, parents of Sandy Hook School shooting victim Avielle Rose Richman, and David and Francine Wheeler, parents of Sandy Hook School shooting victim Benjamin, right, listen at a news conference at Edmond Town Hall in Newtown, Conn., Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. One month after the mass school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the parents joined a grassroots initiative called Sandy Hook Promise to support solutions for a safer community. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

As President-elect Biden steps into the White House in January—and with a much more powerful grassroots movement for gun-safety reform in place—activists are pushing him to make some moves.

Eight years ago today, a gunman stormed into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, shooting and killing 20 children and 26 people total. The massacre proved a new low-point in the federal government’s failure to enact gun safety reform amid a more than decade-long surge in mass shootings and school shootings. While most Americans support gun safety reform—and have for most of the past two decades—Republicans in Congress, empowered by gun extremists and organizations like the National Rifle Association, have refused to act. That is unlikely to change, but gun safety activists and organizations hope they can achieve at least some progress under a Biden administration. 

While President Barack Obama and most Democrats pushed for stronger gun safety laws to protect America’s children, the majority of Republicans in the Senate—and a few red-state Democrats—blocked efforts to expand background checks for gun buyers and ban assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines. 

Obama, speaking at a White House news conference after the votes failed, said it was “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”

Now, nearly a decade and dozens of mass shootings later, Republicans are still blocking gun safety reforms, even as nearly 40,000 Americans die a year from firearm-related injuries, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now that President-elect Biden is stepping into the White House in January and a much more powerful grassroots movement for gun safety reform is in place, activists are hopeful that Biden will take action and are pushing him to do so.

“President-elect Biden’s commitment to action stands in stark contrast to what we’ve seen from Republicans in Congress, who have shown a callous disregard for the 100 Americans killed every day by gun violence,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement last week. 

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Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun safety organization backed by former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg of New York, has called on Biden to enact executive orders. Those executive orders would mandate background checks on nearly all gun sales and require gun dealers to notify the Department of Justice when they complete gun sales before completing background checks. Under existing regulations, sellers can transfer guns to the buyer if a federal background check isn’t completed within three business days.

The group hopes that Biden’s focus on gun safety reform will help push the needle after years of Republican obstruction. The group is also asking Biden to direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to regulate the tracking of homemade firearms, known as ghost guns. They’re not alone in focusing on addressing the issue of ghost guns. 

“A big thing [the Biden administration] can do by executive actions is banning ghost guns, which desperately needs to be done, and that’s something that we’re very supportive of,” Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told COURIER in an interview.

Everytown is also asking that the ATF tighten its definition on which individuals qualify as firearms dealers and are therefore required to comply with federal background checks. Currently, sellers can decide for themselves if they are full-time gun dealers, allowing countless gun sales at gun shows and online without federal background checks. As the New York Times reported, the Everytown plan would allow dealers to sell only five guns per year before they had to conduct background checks. Their plan also includes requiring the FBI to notify state and local authorities when background checks are denied and put in place a federal gun violence task force.

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Horwitz said “there’s a lot of opportunity” for the Biden administration to direct more money to community violence prevention and suicide prevention efforts through the Health and Human Services Department, DOJ, and Department of Education.

Many of these actions are likely to face legal challenges, but the movement pushing them now is also far more robust than after Sandy Hook. 

“At the time of the shooting, we were a much smaller movement,” Horwitz said. “There was not as strong a grassroots movement as we have today.”

Horwitz understands that some people view the failure to pass legislation after Sandy Hook as a sign of the movement’s weakness but believes it’s a mistake to interpret what happened that way. Instead, he says that lawmakers’ failure to enact reform led to the growth of the movement and made it as strong as it is today. 

“The reality is that people got so pissed that Congress didn’t do anything that a movement formed,” he said. 

And more people got involved, they realized that the Sandy Hook tragedy was not an isolated incident. “Things were happening like this in communities around the country every single day,” Horwitz said. “I think those things have become part of our consciousness and led to a much stronger movement and a more united movement.”

While gun safety groups are still pushing for legislation to tighten the nation’s gun laws, such efforts face an uphill climb. Even if Democrats win the Georgia runoff elections and take control of the Senate, garnering 60 votes for any gun legislation is likely to be challenging given the GOP’s obstruction and vocal opposition from gun rights activists. That reality is what prompts organizations like Everytown to push for Biden to enact changes where he can, primarily via executive order.

“While control of the Senate still hangs in the balance, this much is certain: We can’t wait for Senator McConnell to start saving lives. The Biden administration should utilize every available tool in its belt from the first 100 days to the last,” Feinblatt said in his statement.

These efforts come in a year that has seen a significant rise in gun sales, gun violence, and murders amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

As the pandemic unfolded in March and April, the U.S. saw a dramatic increase in gun sales. According to FBI data, there were 3.7 million background checks conducted in March—the most in a single month since the system began in 1998. This surge in demand for guns has not faded as the year has gone on. Between March and November, 43% more gun-sales-related background checks were processed compared to the same period in 2019, according to Everytown’s analysis of FBI data. The group estimates that by the end of 2020, nearly 600,000 checks will have taken longer than three business days. Under the so-called Charleston loophole, all sales delayed past this deadline are eligible to proceed. Everytown estimates that this could allow at least 7,500 illegal gun buyers to acquire firearms—more than during the last two years combined.

RELATED: Gun Sales Are Up Because of Coronavirus. So Is the Risk for a Woman to Be Killed in Her Home.

Gun violence and gun deaths have also risen dramatically this year. Firearm deaths increased by 16% in April and 15% in May, compared to the same months in 2019, according to new data from the Gun Violence Archive provided NBC News. That trend has not stopped as the year has gone on. Year-over-year, homicide rates have increased by 42% during the summer and 34% in the fall across 21 US cities with relevant data, according to a recent report from the Council on Criminal Justice. Crime analyst Jeff Asher found that murders are up 36% across 51 US cities as of late November, compared to the same time in 2019.

There’s no one reason for this uptick, according to Horwitz. Instead, he believes it’s a combination of factors converging simultaneously. “You’re seeing a lot of economic dislocation because of COVID. You’ve seen a lot of gun sales because of COVID, because of people’s insecurities. [When] people are in fear, they buy guns, and those guns get used in suicides and homicides,” he said.

Michael-Sean Spence, director of community safety initiatives at Everytown for Gun Safety, cited the grim uptick in violence this year as a good reason for Biden to take action. 

“As cities across the county grapple with homicide levels they haven’t seen in years, the need for action is urgent,” Spence said in a statement. “This was already a public health crisis before COVID arrived, and the pandemic has made things far worse. We’re seeing the results of decades of inaction, further exposed by the pandemic.”

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