What does the Biden administration mean for gun rights in 2021? A lot of change, but perhaps not all at once. The president has a great deal of work ahead of him, and despite having Democrats in power in both houses, there’s only so much that can be accomplished within the 4 years. Indeed, on the transition website for Biden and Harris, weapons policies are largely absent on the agenda for the first 100 days. With coronavirus and the vaccine rollout program taking precedence, it could take several months to a year before the rest of Biden’s proposals start hitting the floors of the House and the Senate. When they do, however, we could be facing profound changes to what it means to be a gun owner in America.
As a long-time senator and vice president under President Obama, Joe Biden has provided us with a clear picture of where he stands on gun control. In 1993, he was part of the leadership that pushed for the passage of the Brady Bill for background checks, which he followed up in 1994 by his promotion of the Assault Weapons Ban. This ban prohibited the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The ban included a sunset provision, which provided for its expiration in 2004. Under President Obama, then-vice president Biden was responsible for the 24 executive actions aimed at gun control enacted at the tail end of the administration’s tenures (https://joebiden.com/gunsafety/).
During his campaign for president, Mr. Biden laid out his plans for a fundamental overhaul of gun control in an extensive plan listed on the Biden-Harris website. Above and beyond the typical calls for closing gun show and straw purchase loopholes and strengthening existing safeguards were some proposals that alarmed gun rights’ advocates. Chief among these proposals are those that affect sales and possession of assault weapons. Not only does the Biden-Harris administration advocate the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, but they also intend to regulate their possession. According to Biden’s website during his campaign, the administration intends to follow the recommendations of the Giffords Law Center, which stipulate that assault weapons should either be bought back by the government or placed under a licensing system akin to what is currently in place for suppressors and machine guns (https://giffords.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Giffords_GLC_assault-weapons_NFA.pdf ).
gun licensing be maintained under a yearly fee
There are two notable points to make regarding this proposal- one is cost and the other is the term of the license. The current Giffords Center recommendation is that a similar fee be levied for assault weapons as for the items currently under the NFA weapons umbrella; a hefty $200 per item. For avid sportsmen or collectors, this fee would quickly become prohibitive. The second problem is the suggestion that the licensing be maintained under a yearly fee, which would be another obstacle for the weapons enthusiast. It would also serve to limit the possession and maintenance of a collection to the wealthy. As the policy also recommends that the fee go directly to funding the ATF instead of the federal treasury (where it currently goes), the ATF is likely to be an enthusiastic proponent of such an effort. Keep in mind that these regulations would only apply to currently-owned items. If an updated version of the 1994 assault weapons ban is reinstated, no weapons falling in this category can be manufactured, built, transferred, or purchased in the future.
1994 weapons ban
Whereas calls to reinstate the 1994 weapons ban are not new, the idea of a mandatory choice between government buy back and registration of currently-held weapons with a yearly licensing fee certainly is. Another proposal raising concerns is the idea of banning all online sales of arms and ammunition (https://marchforourlives.com/peace-plan/). The Biden campaign website clearly states that this is a reform the new administration will be pursuing. In addition to these new proposals, the president signaled his desire to strengthen current safeguards such as requiring that attempted purchases by prohibited persons be reported to state and local law enforcement, restricting all gun purchases to one per individual within a month’s time, adding hate crimes to the misdemeanor convictions that prevent gun possession, and harmonizing a federal legal approach to the current state-level laws prosecuting adults for allowing weapon access to minors. The incoming administration has also signaled a desire to tackle the rise of technology in the gun industry, both by blocking the code that allows 3D gun printing online and by incentivizing the manufacture of fingerprint-activated guns in a bid to make all weapons without this new feature obsolete.
With a Democratically-controlled House and Senate, these proposals indeed appear to be likely to pass for the first time. There are, however, some indications that all of this may take several years to enact. It is notable that all calls for gun control were muted during the last phase of Biden and Harris campaigning heading into the election. No matter where Americans stand politically, there is a large portion of the population which would oppose gun control. Although President Biden has stated his intention to reinstate the Obama-era policy that requires the Social Security Administration to report incompetent individuals to the national background check database (repealed by the Trump administration), no other gun control policy is present on his transition website for the his first 100 days.
The issues that dominate this first time period include coronavirus management, an economic aid package due to the pandemic, a vaccine rollout program, climate policies, reversing the corporate tax cuts, and rolling back immigration changes during the last administration, in that order. Given that overturning the immigration changes alone number over 400 policy reversals, the new president has a long road ahead to achieve his objectives. He also has the advantage of having established relationships with other lawmakers and the political clout to push his objectives. With a Republican-leaning judiciary and the requirement for a period of public feedback (under the Administrative Procedures Act), there is a good chance that gun control measures, although likely to come to pass, will be delayed for a little while. Whether President Biden’s “America United” theme can withstand the exacerbation of already heightened cultural divisions that would result from this new push for gun control remains to be seen.