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Can Biden push gun control legislation through Congress before the end of the year?


President Biden is seeking to pass a ban on assault rifles before the end of the year. He's making that pitch in the immediate aftermath of several deadly mass shootings across the U.S. in recent weeks. Democrats have made this proposal dozens of times in recent years, but they have been able to get it done, mainly because many Republicans in Congress oppose any type of gun control. So will it be different this time around? For more, we turn now to Robert Spitzer. He's a distinguished service professor emeritus of political science at SUNY Cortland and an expert on gun policy. Professor Spitzer, what kind of pitch does President Biden need to make to push increased gun control legislation through Congress before the end of the year?

ROBERT SPITZER: I'm not sure there's anything he can say that will make the Senate move. It's important to remember that the House of Representatives has already passed an assault weapons ban bill and included in that a limit on large-capacity magazines, which arguably is even more important. But as you just discussed, the Senate has a full plate. The spotlight will be on the Senate when it comes to assault weapons and possible action. But it's hard to imagine the Senate mustering 60 votes to enact a new assault weapons ban.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, professor, I was going to start off by asking you how likely it is that he would be able to push gun control legislation through Congress because usually, the answer is not likely. But not even a pitch, no pitch at all you think could crack the Senate?

SPITZER: Well, he might want the Senate to take a vote. And other Democrats might want a vote to be held, as well, just so that they're on record on the issue. The assault weapons ban idea is supported by most Americans. It's been floating around a long time. And so for political reasons, there might be a push to go ahead. But with so much on the Senate's plate and on Congress's plate, I think it will be a difficult haul. And the question that he will need to ask is whether that's where he wants to put significant political effort in the short time between now and when the new Congress convenes in January.

MARTÍNEZ: What about executive action to overcome the gridlock?

SPITZER: President Biden issued some executive actions this past summer pertaining to the gun issue. And he probably will be looking at a way or may be looking at a way now to tweak existing rules that could affect gun policy. But it's important to remember that executive orders are not the vast, sweeping, unlimited powers that many people ascribe to them. And he this summer, for example, said that they would tighten up on gun dealer regulations and on restricting ghost guns. And especially moving on ghost guns, I think, will be significant in terms of executive actions. But it's not clear that there's a whole lot more he can do within the realm of executive orders and other unilateral actions because important policies are still framed by Congress.

MARTÍNEZ: Biden has also mentioned red-flag laws, the lack of enforcement of red-flag laws around the country. Now, those are state laws. What could Washington do to increase enforcement of red-flag laws across the country?

SPITZER: In the bipartisan gun bill that Congress passed and President Biden signed this past summer, there was a provision to encourage more states to adopt red-flag laws and to provide funding for them. And he's - at the least, I would think would want to be very public to encourage states to move ahead in doing that. Nineteen states have red flag laws in place right now. And one of the problems we've seen is that often, the enforcement of these laws is pretty spotty, and knowledge of red-flag laws is very limited. And red-flag laws are typically triggered when a family member or somebody who knows somebody who owns guns and who makes a threat against others or against themselves then goes to the police to begin the red-flag law process to perhaps remove guns from the person. But you've got to be able to know that you can do that before the process begins. And much more publicity could be issued surrounding that. That's not an executive order matter, per se necessarily, but it's something that could be done to increase the effectiveness of red-flag laws.

MARTÍNEZ: I remember as candidate Biden, he had promised to hold gun manufacturers accountable and repeal a law that provides protection for gun-makers. What kind of an impact would that kind of move make?

SPITZER: If Congress decided to move ahead with changing the law to allow lawsuits against gun manufacturers to proceed, that would be a major, major change. It's not on the agenda, and it is not something to my way of thinking that the president could advance through unilateral presidential actions.

MARTÍNEZ: It sounds pretty hopeless for people that want some movement on this, professor.

SPITZER: Well, the only other question, I think, is whether movement could be made separately on limiting large-capacity magazines because that's a major problem.

MARTÍNEZ: Gun control expert Robert Spitzer, thanks for your time.

SPITZER: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.