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After Colorado Shooting, Biden Urges Action From Senate On Gun Bills

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At least 18 people have been killed in two mass shootings in this country in just a week. So the attention has again turned to the nation's gun laws. Should those laws change? Can they? Democrats control the White House and narrowly Congress. The House has passed two gun control bills this month. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he will bring them to the floor.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: This Democratic-led Senate will be different. The Senate is not going to hide. We're going to debate and address the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

MARTIN: But that doesn't mean the outcome in the Senate will be any different. NPR's political reporter Juana Summers is with us this morning. Hi, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: I mentioned these two House bills. Can you tell us about them?

SUMMERS: Yeah, Rachel, these bills are both broadly popular with the public and are both aimed at addressing gaps and making sure that people who shouldn't have guns can't purchase them. One of the bills would close the so-called Charleston loophole. It was first proposed in the wake of another deadly shooting in Charleston, S.C., in which the white supremacist who killed nine people at a church should have been barred from buying a handgun, but he was able to ultimately do so. That bill would extend the amount of time that the FBI has to complete a background check. And the other bill would require people from buying guns - if they're buying guns in a public or private seller to undergo a background check.

MARTIN: So when we talk about these measures being broadly popular, I mean, it is across the board - right? - Republicans, Democrats, independents. What does that mean for the bill's chances in the Senate?

SUMMERS: So one thing we know is that these bills will get a vote. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says that is going to happen, but at least right now, it does not seem like they have the votes to pass. With a 50-50 Senate, Democrats must win the support of 10 Republicans to pass most major measures. And it's also important to note that this is not an area where Democrats are totally together. West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin has said that he does not support this legislation. He's explained it and said that he opposes the idea of a universal background check because that would require a background check even if you're, say, buying a gun from another private citizen that you know.

Now, Manchin is someone who has backed compromise gun legislation with Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. There is some talk of reviving that legislation this year. But keep in mind that this was a bill that even failed after that horrific 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We've gotten a sense of where the White House is, too. When President Biden spoke yesterday, he mentioned wanting to reinstate a ban on assault weapons. That's something that was passed in the 1990s when he was a senator.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again. I got that done when I was a senator. It passed. It was law for the longest time. And it brought down these mass killings. We should do it again.

SUMMERS: And, Rachel, what he's talking about there does go further than what we've seen Democrats on Congress propose so far.

MARTIN: I mean, could he do this on his own, something like the assault weapons ban? Because he - could he use executive action?

SUMMERS: So the White House was asked yesterday about the potential for executive action. They've said they're discussing a number of possible options - wouldn't really get into specifics, though. But there is just a lot of pressure from the outside on Biden to do something on his own and not just because of the horrible violence that we've seen this week. This is an issue he campaigned on. He talked about gun violence in this country as a public health crisis. And he included in that not just the mass shootings that make national headlines but also daily acts of gun violence that plague urban communities. Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked yesterday about the president possibly appointing a specific official to oversee gun violence prevention at the White House. That's something a number of groups focused on these issues have called for. She didn't give a firm answer on that, but it also was not dismissed.

MARTIN: I mean, this issue has just been so intractable for so long, Juana. What are you hearing from lawmakers? I mean, is there anything new in the debate or are they reverting to the same talking points?

SUMMERS: I mean, frankly, yes. Among Democrats, that sounds like a lot of anger, particularly focused on the fact that they feel like this is something the government should do. They feel that the gun lobby has a ton of power over Republicans. And they know that they've won elections in competitive areas running on a gun control platform in 2018. But among the Republican base, there's still this fear of a slippery slope, the idea that even modest gun control could lead to things they feel would infringe on their Second Amendment rights. This is still just an incredibly potent cultural issue on the right.

MARTIN: NPR's Juana Summers. Thank you, Juana.

SUMMERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.