President Joe Biden on Friday marked one year since the passage of the first major gun safety legislation in a generation during a summit in Connecticut, as gun violence reaches record levels in the United States and additional congressional action remains stalled.
In remarks at the National Safer Communities Summit in Connecticut, the president delivered an impassioned speech on taking further steps to protect communities, arguing that he believes the movement has reached a “tipping point.”
“Whether you’re Democrats or Republicans we all want families to be safe. We all want to drop them off at a house of worship, a mall, a movie, a school door without worrying that it’s the last time we’re going to see them. We all want our kids to have the freedom to learn, to read and to write instead of learning how to duck and cover in a classroom. And above all, we all agree we are not finished. We are not finished. We are not finished,” Biden said to applause in the packed auditorium.
Last year, Biden signed legislation called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act into law – a significant breakthrough on one of the most contentious policy issues. The administration has also implemented two dozen executive actions to try to reduce gun violence. But in the absence of congressional action, the White House has turned its focus to state action to try to reduce gun violence.
“For me, and for most of you, here’s what it really is: It’s an important first step,” Biden said, referring to the gun safety legislation he signed into law last year.
Biden spoke at the University of Hartford, where, in 2013, former President Barack Obama delivered remarks following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. Ten years later, gun violence remains a challenging issue for the White House.
“You’ve turned your cause into reality. I believe we’ve reached a tipping point. I really do, I swear to God. The people in this room are the big reason why we’ve reached that tipping point,” Biden said.
The president, receiving a standing ovation, also called for Congress to ban assault weapons and end liability immunity for gun manufacturers.
But since the law was signed last year, further action on gun violence has stalled in Congress. After three children and three adults were killed in a shooting at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville in March, Biden asserted that he’s done all he can to address gun control and urged members on Capitol Hill to act.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told reporters Friday he remains “hopeful” about finding further compromise with Republicans this year, while acknowledging additional bipartisan action is far from a guarantee.
“I’m still hopeful that we can do something with Republicans this year. But if we can’t, then my recommendation to Sen. (Chuck) Schumer is going to be to put measures on the floor – background checks or an assault weapons ban,” said Murphy, who was one of the summit organizers.
Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act on June 25, 2022, in the wake of horrific shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
The law includes millions of dollars for mental health, school safety, crisis intervention programs and incentives for states to include juvenile records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. It also made significant changes to the process when someone ages 18 to 21 goes to buy a firearm and closes the so-called boyfriend loophole, a victory for Democrats, who have long fought for that.
Friday’s summit – put together by Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, along with gun safety groups – is intended to highlight last year’s legislation and drill down on policy.
“I think it’s really smart for them to put this together to remind people about this legislation,” said Mark Barden, co-founder and CEO of the Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund. “It’s a good start. We need to keep the momentum going.”
The summit included speeches from local officials and members of the administration as well as panels, covering the on-the-ground impact of the legislation.
The several hundred people packed into the theater included gun violence survivors from tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, violence prevention advocates and members of community safety groups like Everytown, Giffords and Moms Demand Action.
“The news this year is mixed, but it’s not all bad. Mass shootings are still steady and that’s awful. But gun violence rates more broadly in our cities are going down this year for the first time in a long time,” Murphy told CNN. “I know it’s hard for people to see progress, especially when there are these mass shootings continuing to happen.”
Murphy said Friday’s summit, named the National Safer Communities Summit, will help sharpen the continued work of building a broader movement, while noting how hard it can be to see progress as the nation continues to grapple with mass shootings.
“We’re building a movement and you don’t build movements in silos. You got to bring people together to celebrate successes and to plan and there’s a lot of energy in that room right now,” he said.
The Gun Violence Archive reports that there have been more than 290 mass shootings in the US so far this year, leaving more than 325 people dead and 1,175 injured. Mass shootings have become so common in the United States that the White House has framed their approach as akin to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hurricane response.
Behind the scenes, administration officials have been developing ways in which the federal government can respond in the short- and long-term after a mass shooting, recognizing the physical, mental, and economic ramifications.
White House officials have been sober about the political realities Democrats face with the current makeup of Congress, where Republicans in control of the House have rejected Biden’s calls for an assault weapons ban.
Even when both chambers of Congress were controlled by Democrats during the first two years of Biden’s term, an assault weapon ban gained little traction, in part because of a 60-vote threshold necessary to advance bills through the Senate.
However, the administration is still taking executive actions on the issue, including one that announced Friday regarding new steps to advance mental health initiatives for young people affected by gun violence, an official told CNN.
As part of Friday’s announcement, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Education will work together to address “unprecedented challenges and disruptions in their school lives and communities, including increased disconnection and social isolation as well as increased gun violence,” according to a release shared with CNN.
According the administration, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act has seen $286 million in Department of Education funding to date to expand mental health coverage through the School-Based Mental Health and Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration – an investment the administration estimates will lead to 14,000 additional mental health professionals in schools.
An additional $1 billion in funding has been awarded through the department’s Stronger Connections Grant, which targets high-need districts, and $50 million in funding for before- and after-school programming for youths.
“If we as a people normalize the slaughter of innocent children then we have bigger problems on our hands. If we as a country care more about selling AR-15s than saving the lives of children we’ve lost our way. We no longer ask if it’s going to happen again. But when and where,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in impassioned remarks at Friday’s summit.
And at HHS, an estimated $245 million in funding has been awarded under the law to support youth mental health, with additional funding for school-based mental health programs, personnel training, and treatment and support services “for individuals and communities affected by trauma caused by gun violence,” the administration said in a statement.
“It’s no secret that we are facing a mental health crisis in this country, and our children are hurting,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “The actions being announced today will make it easier for schools to receive payment for the mental health services they deliver to students impacted by gun violence.”