Joe Biden has called on Congress to “finally do something” to toughen US guns laws, such as banning assault weapons or raising the age at which they can be purchased, to stop the country’s “ordinary places” from becoming “killing fields”.
Biden spoke from the White House on Thursday evening in a rare primetime address after delaying a previously planned trip to his beach house in Delaware by a few hours.
His appeal came on the heels of three high-profile deadly shootings across the US in recent weeks, in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, earlier this week.
“Let’s hear the call and the cry. Let’s meet the moment. Let us finally do something,” Biden said.
While the chances of any legislative compromise to tighten gun laws in the US are seen as remote given huge Republican opposition, a small group of senators including Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat, and John Cornyn, the Texas Republican, has been holding talks to see if there might be an opening for a deal.
Biden hopes he can put pressure on Congress to come to an agreement by pointing out how overwhelmingly popular a number of gun control measures are, particularly modest steps such as imposing background check requirements.
The president specifically called for the reinstatement of the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which was introduced in 1994 under Bill Clinton and allowed to expire a decade later during the presidency of George W Bush. Many of the recent mass shootings have featured the use of such firearms.
Alluding to the fact that this might be a step too far for Congress, Biden suggested that lawmakers alternatively consider raising the age limit for purchasing those weapons from 18 to 21.
He said: “Don’t tell me raising the age won’t make a difference. Enough!”
The president also called for other measures that would put stricter controls on gun purchases and ownership, including tougher rules on how to store firearms and “red flag” laws to identify individuals exhibiting violent tendencies who may threaten the community. He also called for gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability for a broad range of conduct to be repealed.
Biden pointed to the possibility that stricter gun laws might struggle to pass through Congress and suggested that the issue could mobilise voters in the November midterm elections, where Democrats are facing an uphill battle to maintain their slim majorities.
“I’ve been in this fight for a long time. I know how hard it is, when I’ll never give up. If Congress fails, I believe this time a majority of American people won’t give up either,” Biden said. “I believe the majority of you will act to turn your outrage into making this issue central to your vote.”
Biden said he respected the “culture and tradition” of “lawful gun owners” but stressed that the Second Amendment of the constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms, was not “absolute”. He even cited the words of the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as saying it was not “unlimited”.
“This isn’t about taking anyone’s rights,” Biden said. “It’s about protecting children, protecting families, protecting whole communities, protecting our freedom to go to school, to a grocery store, to a church and not being shot and killed.”