The United States, emerging from pandemic lockdowns, has stumbled back into the maelstrom of mass gun killings and the malaise of federal inaction.
On Thursday night, eight people were killed after a gunman opened fire inside a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis, less than a month after mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder — and near the anniversary of another atrocity.
“Today, while we mourn with Indianapolis, we also remember the 32 students and educators shot and killed 14 years ago today at Virginia Tech,” officials at the gun control group founded by the former Representative Gabrielle Giffords wrote on Twitter early Friday. “No major federal gun law has been passed since then.”
But there are signs, albeit modest and tentative ones, that things might be changing.
President Biden, under intense pressure from Ms. Giffords’s group and other advocates, is moving ahead with several narrow executive actions, and there are new negotiations on Capitol Hill for an expansion of background checks — aided by the financial collapse of the National Rifle Association,
Among the most consequential actions so far is a personnel move: Mr. Biden has tapped David Chipman, a former federal law enforcement official, to be the new head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a battered and bullied agency tasked with enforcing existing federal gun laws and executive actions.
Over the years, N.R.A.-allied lawmakers have handcuffed the A.T.F. with the tightest restrictions imposed on any federal law enforcement agency, even banning the bureau from making gun tracing records searchable by computer.
The agency has been without a full-time director for much of the last 25 years because N.R.A.-allied senators have quashed nominations, by Republican and Democratic administrations, arguing that a strong agency leader threatens the Second Amendment.
Mr. Chipman is an unapologetic proponent of expanding background checks, again banning assault weapons and unshackling A.T.F. inspectors — so his nomination is expected to provoke a particularly acrimonious partisan battle.
But White House officials are hopeful he can garner as many as 52 votes given the current disgust over the recent shootings. Senator Joe Manchin III, the most conservative Democrat on guns, has expressed tentative support, and two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, are open to the pick, according to Senate Republican aides with knowledge of their thinking.
On a parallel track, a dozen senators in both parties have quietly begun to negotiate a deal to expand background checks for gun purchases — a proposal that enjoys nearly 90 percent approval nationally in recent polls.
Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both of Connecticut, have been reaching out to Republicans in hopes of passing a narrower background check bill than the universal-checks measure passed by House Democrats earlier this year.
After the shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Mr. Biden’s domestic policy adviser, Susan Rice, and her small staff were given authority over the issue. But the most powerful internal proponent of gun control is turning out to be Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, whose support for Mr. Chipman was a critical factor in his nomination, according to several people familiar with the situation who were not authorized to speak publicly.
The West Wing is investing a lot of political capital to push for Mr. Chipman out of necessity: Revitalizing the bureau is one of the few areas where the executive branch can exert direct control over guns without new laws or new rules.
Mr. Biden, adopting a tone of disgust and frustration, unveiled two relatively modest executive actions last week — a 60-day review of homemade, unregistered “ghost guns” likely to lead to a ban, and the elimination of arm braces used to turn pistols into short-barreled rifles, a proposal rejected by the Trump administration.
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