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Biden announces an executive order to increase background checks on gun buyers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today, President Biden announced an executive order to address what he has called a national embarrassment; that is, mass shootings across the United States. One such shooting happened in January in Monterey Park, Calif., and that is where the president paid tribute today to the 11 people who were killed as he touted his previous and new actions on gun control.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today, I'm announcing another executive order that will accelerate and intensify this work to save more lives more quickly.

KELLY: The order will strengthen enforcement of existing laws on background checks for gun buyers, also promote awareness of red flag laws and gun safety and develop more resources for gun violence survivors.

Let's hear more now from Susan Rice, the president's domestic policy adviser, also a former national security adviser in the Obama administration. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SUSAN RICE: Good to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Start with background checks and that this new executive order will strengthen enforcement. It'll ensure that all background checks required by law are actually conducted. Why is that not being done already?

RICE: Well, Mary Louise, there are actually gaps and loopholes in existing law as it relates to universal background checks, which is why the president has for so many years - and continues to this day - to call on Congress to pass legislation that would ensure universal background checks.

KELLY: But the laws that are already on the books, why are they not being enforced?

RICE: The laws that are on the books are being enforced. And an important new law was passed last summer, the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which changed the definition of who is, quote, "engaged in the business of selling firearms." So what the president's executive order does today is to direct the attorney general to examine ways to clarify that definition to ensure that everybody who should be subject to background checks who's selling firearms are required to comply. So this executive order and the action that the attorney general will take in response to it will bring us as close as we possibly can to ensuring universal background checks without new legislation.

KELLY: So I'm trying to wrap my head around what that means, what will actually change here. I saw one thing that part of this is going to be naming and shaming federally licensed firearms dealers who may be breaking the law. Is that right?

RICE: There is a provision of the executive order, which is actually quite expansive. It does a number of different things, one of which is to direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to make public to the extent the law allows the inspection reports that they conduct on licensed firearm dealers who are found to be in violation of their obligations in the law. So that's the portion that you might call naming and shaming.

At the same time, the executive order also, very importantly, directs steps to raise public awareness of so-called red flag orders. These are laws that enable responsible community members to petition a judge to say that a certain person that they are close to they believe to be a danger to themselves or to others. If the judge agrees, then that person can temporarily be prohibited from accessing or acquiring a firearm.

KELLY: And those are laws that obviously would only work if people know about them and know how to use them.

RICE: Exactly. And that's the point...

KELLY: So you're trying to encourage that.

RICE: ...Is to raise awareness. And similarly, on safe storage of firearms - so many horrific incidents we've heard about stem from the fact that people who shouldn't have their hands on a gun - that belongs to a family member or somebody else in the household or the like - can get their hands on it and do terrible things, as we have seen even with very young children of late. And so raising awareness about safe storage requirements and practices is also very important.

KELLY: Susan Rice, you will have seen there's already criticism of this order, saying it's largely symbolic, that we are living in a country where we have seen 110 mass shootings already this year. And it is March. To that criticism, you say what?

RICE: Well, I say, first of all, I'm grateful to the many advocates and members of Congress and others who have heralded this executive order as a huge step forward because they understand how important these steps are. Those who oppose it are typically the ones that are, you know, defending the gun manufacturers and the gun lobby and the NRA who don't want to see any additional action in this space.

But the reality is, Mary Louise, there are limits to what any president can do through executive action. This order takes this administration and this president as far as we believe it's possible to go. And that's very important.

KELLY: Because for something like a ban on assault-style weapons or a real universal background check, the president - any president - needs Congress.

RICE: Exactly.

KELLY: So that's my last question to you. Do you have a plan? Does the White House have a plan to break through gridlock in Congress on this issue?

RICE: Well, Mary Louise, as you know, most Americans understand the value of universal background checks by a large margin and the need to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. There's one party, though in Congress who sees it differently. And so, as you may have noticed and as I hope the American people have noticed, the president is relentless. In all - virtually every public appearance he makes, he calls for a reinstatement of the assault weapon ban and is pushing on that because he knows, based on prior experience when it was implemented for 10 years back in the 1990s, the number of shootings dropped dramatically. And then when it was lifted, it...

KELLY: He calls for it, but do you have any realistic hope that it might pass?

RICE: I think that - look, we saw it pass the House of Representatives in the prior Congress. I think there's prospects in the Democratically controlled Senate down the road. But what we have seen in the House of Representatives under the new leadership is absolutely not encouraging.

KELLY: Susan Rice - she is domestic policy adviser in the Biden administration. Thanks so much.

RICE: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.