WASHINGTON — President Biden on Tuesday declared himself powerless to respond to the scourge of gun violence in America, a remarkably blunt admission one day after an assailant killed six people, including three children, at a school in Nashville.
“I have gone the full extent of my executive authority to do, on my own, anything about guns,” Mr. Biden told reporters, responding to questions about what actions he could take to prevent mass shootings.
It was a stark and surprising statement by the president, who essentially threw up his hands in the face of one of the most intractable problems facing American society. The political system has remained all but deadlocked for more than a decade on major changes to gun laws, despite one horrifying shooting after another.
Even with majorities in both houses of Congress during Mr. Biden’s first two years in office, Democrats were unable to pass an assault weapons ban, and any effort now is almost certain to fail in the Republican-controlled House.
Mr. Biden rejected questions about whether he could, or should, do more through executive actions, such as trying to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or addressing mental health issues that are often viewed as the cause of mass shootings.
“Wait, wait, wait, wait a minute. Wait a minute,” Mr. Biden told reporters as he headed for an economic event at a North Carolina semiconductor plant. “The Congress has to act. The majority of the American people think having assault weapons is bizarre; it’s a crazy idea. They’re against that. And so, I think the Congress should be passing the assault weapons ban.”
To be clear, he said, “I can’t do anything except plead with the Congress to act reasonably.”
Speaking later at the event in North Carolina, Mr. Biden did just that, urging Congress to ban the weapons in the hopes of keeping “weapons of war” out of the hands of people who can use them to kill children and others.
“People say, ‘Why do I keep saying this if it’s not happening?’” the president said. “Because I want you to know who isn’t doing it. Who isn’t helping. To put pressure on them.”
He added that there was “a moral price to pay for inaction.”
Mr. Biden’s remarks at the event made clear that he believes congressional action to limit the availability of assault weapons is the most powerful way to make a significant difference in the fight against mass shootings.
But his comments earlier to reporters suggest that anything short of that would be negligible. The actions at Mr. Biden’s disposal include using his position of authority or other powers of persuasion to push Congress to ban assault weapons, restrict the purchase of ammunition or require background checks.
Mr. Biden reminded reporters on Tuesday that as a senator he led the successful effort in 1994 to pass a ban on assault weapons as a way to reduce the use of “weapons of war” in shootings at schools, shopping malls and elsewhere. The ban stayed in place until Congress let it lapse 10 years later.
Since then, however, Washington has refused to reinstate the ban, and has largely failed to pass significant new restrictions on the sale, manufacture or distribution of firearms. Modest bipartisan legislation passed last year, and signed into law by Mr. Biden, offered incentives to local governments to set up red flag laws and made minor changes to background check laws.
The issue of what to do about gun violence in America has been a challenge for presidents for years.
In 2012, President Barack Obama struggled to hold back tears as he reacted to the killing of 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Months later, he responded angrily when the Senate rejected his appeal for universal background checks on all gun sales. Mr. Obama called it a “shameful day for Washington.”
“But this effort is not over,” Mr. Obama said, echoing the language of presidents before and after him. “I want to make it clear to the American people we can still bring about meaningful changes that reduce gun violence, so long as the American people don’t give up on it. Even without Congress, my administration will keep doing everything it can to protect more of our communities.”
In 2018, after a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., President Donald J. Trump convened a session broadcast on live television and declared: “It would be so beautiful to have one bill that everyone could support. It’s time that a president stepped up.” He later abandoned efforts to pass gun safety legislation in the face of lobbying by conservative lawmakers and the National Rifle Association.
During his first two years in office, Mr. Biden has repeatedly promised to use executive power to make progress even as action in Congress remains stalled.
This month in Monterey Park, Calif., the site of another mass shooting, Mr. Biden announced a series of executive actions directing administration officials to do everything possible — without new congressional legislation — to expand background checks and limit the spread of illegal guns.
In the statement announcing the executive orders, the White House said that “as he continues to call on Congress to act, President Biden will do everything he can to reduce gun violence and save lives.”
During his remarks in Monterey Park, Mr. Biden appeared to be concerned that continued executive actions could be used by members of Congress to avoid taking actions of their own.
“Let’s be clear: None of this absolves Congress from the responsibility of acting to pass universal background checks, eliminate gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability,” he said.
“So let’s finish the job,” he added. “Ban assault weapons. Ban them again. Do it now. Enough. Do something. Do something big.”
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