Can Biden move the GOP on guns? It's the ultimate test of his deal-making powers

As the violence continues, simply pointing fingers at Congress isn't enough. This should be Biden's big moment

By Brian Karem


Published March 30, 2023 9:29AM (EDT)

US Capitol Building | Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
US Capitol Building | Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

On Monday I saw something in the White House briefing room I'd never seen before.

As some 50 reporters sat quietly, musing on when the scheduled briefing would actually begin, one of the reporters burst into tears and left the room. 

Turns out, she had just been informed that a friend of hers had a child attending the Covenant Elementary School in Nashville. Five minutes before she burst into tears we all found out that three adults and three nine-year-old children died there in the country's latest mass shooting. With 131 mass shootings since the beginning of the year, we are averaging more than 1.5 every day.

President Biden said Monday he has done "everything he can" to stop the mass shootings. But has he? He has issued executive orders and while press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told us Wednesday those were the most extensive any president has issued — well, they haven't done much. 

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week, either Biden or someone in his administration urged Congress again to vote for an assault weapons ban. Tuesday morning, as he left the White House, he stopped and talked to reporters. We asked him what he could do. "It's in Congress' hands. They must do something," he told us. And the earth is round.

An hour later I was nearly brought to tears when Rep. Tim Burchett, the Republican who represents Knoxville, Tennessee, in the House of Representatives, told a reporter, "We're not going to fix it." Well, at least he was honest. Spineless, but honest.

Facts show that the Republican Party is not only immune to calls for fixing the problem, but that in turning a blind eye to the problem they have become a part of it.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, is taking advantage of the divisiveness. Go figure. He showed up in Waco, Texas, last weekend to preach during the 30th anniversary of the Branch Davidian siege at Mount Carmel, just outside Waco. That siege in 1993 and the one at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the year before are responsible for the modern-day militia movement, with its stockpiles of weapons and delusional belief in the "deep state" — in other words, Trump's core supporters. No wonder he wanted to speak at Waco. 

The first mass shooting I can recall paying any attention to was the 1989 mass shooting at Standard Gravure, a printing facility in Louisville, Kentucky. A troubled 47-year old man went into his former place of employment, killed eight people and injured 12 more with an AK-47 before he stuck a gun under his chin and ended his rampage. It remains the worst mass shooting in Kentucky's history. 

The first mass shooting I covered was at a Luby's restaurant in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood, in 1991. Twenty-three people died there. A 35-year-old man named George Hennard crashed his pickup truck through the wall of the restaurant, exited the truck and opened fire before committing suicide.

Mass shootings and Texas seem to go hand in hand, or more like a bullet in the chamber. One of the most infamous occurred there in 1966 when  Charles Joseph Whitman, a former U.S. Marine, killed 16 and wounded at least 30 while shooting from a tower on the University of Texas campus in Austin. Police officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy shot and killed Whitman in the tower. Whitman had also killed his mother and wife earlier in the day.

The stupidity is almost too much to fathom. It seems beyond Republican comprehension that you can actually keep people away from guns — or, as Karine Jean-Pierre put it, "weapons of war."

In June 2017, then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was injured in a mass shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside the nation's capital. We saw him a few months later at the Trump White House, on the mend, smiling and unbending in his will to keep handguns, not to mention assault rifles, cheap and plentiful.

The stupidity is almost too much to fathom. The rationale from folks like Scalise and Burchett can be summed up by something Burchett told a reporter at the Capitol this week. He said that his philosophy was influenced by his father, who told him, "Buddy, if somebody wants to take you out and doesn't mind losing their life, there's not a whole heck of a lot you can do about it."

Perhaps that's true when they're standing over you with a gun, but it appears to be beyond Burchett's comprehension — or his dad's — that the one thing you can actually do is keep people away from guns — or as Jean-Pierre said in the briefing room on Wednesday, "weapons of war."

"Criminals who want guns will always find them," is often the response to that. OK. Fine. But could we make it just a little harder for them? The fact is, many of the people involved in mass shootings get their guns legally, and many have no previous criminal record that would prohibit them from owning as many guns as they want. Mentally disturbed individuals and mass shootings are joined at the hip. Mental health, anyone?

I covered a shooting in San Antonio once where an angry young husband walked across the street from his apartment to a Walmart, bought a gun and ammunition, walked home and blew away his wife, his infant son and the dog, before turning the gun on himself. 

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The House, where Republicans are in control, has rejected Biden's calls for an assault weapons ban. Speaker Kevin McCarthy simply would not answer questions Tuesday on whether any congressional action should be taken on guns after the latest mass shooting. Mind you, House Republicans have plenty to say about naked statues, and what we should be teaching kids in school. It's a strange world where we want teachers armed, but won't trust what books they read to their students.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are slamming Republicans for their refusal to act. "All we're going to get are thoughts and prayers out of their Twitter accounts, and that's not enough," said Democratic Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar of California. 

The truth is, Republicans love gun owners — and more importantly gun manufacturers. We all know this. Burchett's honesty underscores the fact that there is a convergence between the gun owners,  the manufacturers and the Republican Party.

Donald Trump invoked the reason why during his speech at Waco: "This is the final battle." To him it's a doomsday apocalyptic scenario and those who venerate the cultists at Waco are being called to arms. Some say it is because Trump fancies himself a messiah like David Koresh, who died in the ashes of Waco. Some say it's because he wants people to see him as a victim of the "deep state," as Koresh also claimed. All that may be so, but the fact is that many of Trump's supporters are gun-loving "patriots" who fantasize that they are the Minutemen of the Revolutionary War and the government of, by and for the people is actually the 21st-century version of the English monarchy circa 1776. Of course these people are delusional — they worship the Branch Davidian cultists. And they are dangerously delusional with guns in their hands — one of their all-consuming passions.

Owning not one, but many guns, is their mantra, to protect themselves — in some hypothetical universe — from what happened to the Branch Davidians at Waco. Trump's core supporters would be more than comfortable at Mount Carmel in 1993.

The Biden administration doesn't yet seem to understand the depths of depravity involved here. It isn't just that we need an assault weapons ban. We need better gun policies across the board. We need more inspectors and more education, and we need a deal-maker who can make that happen.

Donald Trump is preaching apocalypse. Families are suffering. America resembles a war zone. But Joe Biden told me this week: "I can't do anything but plead Congress to act."

Donald Trump is preaching an apocalypse. Families are suffering. People are worn out from being shot at all the time. Modern-day America, in our schools, places of worship, shopping venues and practically any other public setting, resembles a war zone. And I will say, having been in several war zones, you feel a lot safer when you know where the enemy with a gun is. We have no such luck in America today. 

Biden got an infrastructure bill passed that no one thought could be done. So where are his deal-making skills now? I asked him that as he left the White House Tuesday and his answer was brief: "I can't do anything but plead Congress to act."

Really? How about being a little more proactive? Invite the Republican leadership over to the White House. Nosh a bit. Imbibe. Solve the problem. Wait: Who am I kidding? You can't even get Kevin McCarthy to introduce a budget and work on the debt ceiling. He's not coming by for a visit to solve the problems that lead to random Americans getting shot for no reason.

Today the Republican Party is divided between those like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who want to tear the country apart, and the rare statesmen like Mitt Romney, who recognize how stupid that would be. 

Remember that Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, fought to keep our country whole. 

He obviously couldn't get nominated in that party today — for anything. The Republicans are filled with those who love their guns, not for the sake of loving them but for the explicit purpose of using them — or threatening to use them — to intimidate and subjugate the majority of Americans who view them as creepy, controlling autocrats.

The fight for better gun policy is a fight for the heart of America. One side has nothing going for them but lead; in their thoughts, actions, implements of destruction and callousness toward those who think differently.

Biden keeps saying we are at an "inflection point" in our democracy. He sat in a virtual meeting with other democratic leaders around the world on Wednesday, saying he's optimistic about democracy on the global stage as we go forward.

I'd show a little more belief in that statement if he'd approach the gun problem with the energy and enthusiasm he showed Wednesday. The one tool Biden has that no one else has is his ability to make a deal. He's got the experience. He's got the contacts and the friends on both sides of the aisle to do it.

Make it so.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East, and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Gun Violence Joe Biden Kevin Mccarthy Republicans Steve Scalise