Former President Barack Obama endorsed Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and his own former VP, in a roughly 12-minute video posted to YouTube on Tuesday. He lauded Biden’s career, family, and personal values while pledging support for the ways Biden could take the reins of the United States’ fluctuating economy amid the COVID-19 crisis. He’s also eager to see Biden further grow Obama-era policies like the Affordable Care Act and rejoin the Paris Agreement.
But Obama, in his endorsement, did not make mention of where he and the former VP stand today on important criminal justice reforms or gun policies. He noted that running for president in 2020, compared to Obama’s initial run in 2008, is very different; “there’s too much unfinished business for us to just look backwards.”
Looking back at where Obama’s presidency stood, succeeded and failed on gun issues, though, it is not completely clear how many of Biden’s proposed gun and criminal justice–related policies will take up the last Democratic president’s stances — or compete with those of President Donald Trump.
The Obama Years And Gun Control
Throughout his eight years in office, Obama only signed two pieces of gun legislation into law, and both passed Congress during his first year as president. The first was a law permitting Amtrak passengers to carry handguns in checked baggage, passed in September 2009, that remains in place. The second opened up concealed carry for visitors at the majority of national parks, provided state law aligned with the practice.
However, neither piece of legislation was considered a “major” bill where gun rights were concerned. And despite numerous mass shootings across the country during his presidency, Obama’s attempts to introduce or push what he often called “common-sense gun laws” were unilaterally legislative failures. Instead, they were shored up by executive actions and orders that expired or were rescinded once Trump entered office.
Obama and Biden pushed for comprehensive gun reform with 23 executive actions signed in January 2013 in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which the perpetrator killed 20 students and six educators — most of whom were children between 6 and 7 years old — and injured two others before killing himself. It remains the second deadliest school shooting in the U.S. to date.
Many of the Obama administration’s executive actions were aimed at improving mental health access nationwide, and implementing active shooter training for first responders and schools. Additional actions followed later that year. They also limited access to firearms for people with mental illness.
Frustrated with Congress’ inability or unwillingness to pass any gun safety or gun control legislation, that last one transformed into an executive order during Obama’s final months as president. And following a November 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Obama also issued executive orders in early 2016 to provide additional funding, staffing, and guidance for federal background checks while tightening the “gun show loophole.”
One of Trump’s first actions was to roll back Obama’s order on limiting gun access for people with a mental illness.
Obama publicly discussed his regrets at not being able to pass any gun control regulations before and after leaving office. Most notably, he lamented the failure to pass the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, which would have expanded the federal background check requirement to include private gun sales, eliminating the “gun show loophole” among others. It was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 54–46 when it needed a 60-vote margin to pass.
Biden And Guns In 2020
Biden, who was a Delaware senator from 1979–2008, has had a long and well-documented record on gun policy. He was also one of the chief architects of Obama’s post–Sandy Hook executive actions and orders.
But that was Vice President Joe Biden.
The Biden 2020 campaign page “The Biden Plan To End Our Gun Violence Epidemic” outlines a variety of ways Biden championed gun control legislation both in Congress and as vice president, including the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 — the latter of which directly contributed to prison overcrowding and the disproportionate incarceration of minorities.
Whether that aligns with a platform that could compete and potentially win against the current Republican Party and president remains to be seen. As German Lopez wrote for Vox in October 2019, “Biden’s plan is not as ambitious as that of other candidates in the race, but it would still amount to the largest changes to America’s gun laws in more than two decades.”
In addition to bringing back the federal ban on so-called assault weapons, the Biden campaign pledges to implement universal background checks. It also specifically mentions reinstating “the Obama-Biden policy to keep guns out of the hands of certain people unable to manage their affairs for mental reasons” that Trump reversed in early 2017.
Biden 2020 goes even further by promising to end “all online sales of firearms, ammunition, kits, and gun parts” through legislation, with a direct link to its inspiration: the March For Our Lives Peace Plan. It specifically notes closing several avenues for currently-legal gun purchasing and incentivizing “red flag” laws at the state level, too.
And on this particular issue, Biden has said there’s no room for debate. Speaking with NPR from the campaign trail in September 2019, Biden said, “The idea that we don’t have elimination of assault-type weapons and magazines that can hold multiple bullets in them is absolutely mindless. It is no violation of the Second Amendment. It’s just a bow to the special interests of the gun manufacturers and the NRA. It’s got to stop. … I think there’s no compromise. This is one we have to just push and push and push and push and push. The fact of the matter is, I think, it’s going to result in seeing some of them defeated.”
Lisa Dunn contributed to this report.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.