Biden has to rely on executive orders

By Jules Witcover

Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 7 million votes in November, but he still must invoke special presidential orders, as Trump did, to get his way, for lack of sufficient congressional support on certain controversial issues.

This time it’s over stronger gun control, in the wake of another outbreak of lethal shootings around the country, which Biden as a candidate last year vowed to address if elected. On Thursday, he and Attorney General Merrick Garland told a White House audience of gun critics they intended to step up the federal effort to save American lives lost in the national glut of firearms.

“Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it’s an international embarrassment,” Biden said. “The idea that we have so many people dying every single day from gun violence in America is a blemish on our character as a nation.”

He chided Congress to require more background checks on gun purchasers, saying the legislators had “offered plenty of thoughts and prayers. But they’ve passed not a single new federal law to reduce gun violence. Enough prayers, time for some action.”

Specifically, the president ordered the Justice Department to draft an executive order to govern production of so-called ghost guns without serial numbers, constructed from kits that enable conversion of pistols into short-barreled rifles for greater accuracy.

Biden also announced Thursday his nomination of David Chipman, a former agent and advocate of tighter gun restrictions, as head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The House of Representatives last month passed two bills expanding background checks for gun purchase. But similar action in the Senate is considered unlikely in the face of opposition from Republicans and the powerful gun lobby, which Biden has vowed to challenge early in his presidential tenure.

Complications loom ahead, however, in opposition to the House-passed bills from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has chosen to use his leverage to his political advantage within his party.

On the Republican side, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has continued to brush off Senate Judiciary Committee efforts to address the mayhem as a useless exercise, saying, “Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop the murders.”

Biden has noted that as a senator in 1994 he succeeded in enacting a ban of assault weapons intended for combat, a ban that was later repealed. Now he argues it can be reinstated, in light of the continued growth of civilian deaths from their use.

A month ago he stated at a news conference that action on gun violence was “a matter of timing” that had to compete with other critical priorities he planned to undertake. “As you’ve all observed,” he said, “successful presidents better than me have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing; order it, decide and prioritize what need to be done.”

That formula for moving forward with his ambitious policy agenda seems to describe Biden’s actions in the first two months of his presidency. So far it has cast him as a man who has thought long on where and how he would take the country if it ever fell to his hands, and now is on course to implement those notions.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at

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