If Democrats take charge next year, will COVID push gun violence down their to-do list?

Second Amendment

Gun sales are soaring at the declining number of places in America that sell them. I think there are two reasons for this spike.

The first is that some Americans seem nervous about recent unrest, and feel the need to be armed. The second reason is that the 30% of Americans who acknowledge owning a gun fear Democrat Joe Biden will win the presidency — and that Democrats could flip the Senate, which is currently controlled by Republicans. Combined with the potential for a larger Democratic majority in the House, next year could be the best opportunity for advocates of stricter gun control to finally get something done. 

So gun owners are stocking up. 

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic “web-vention,” Biden spoke of “the daily fear of being gunned down in school” and how “No one’s been tougher … on the gun lobby” than him. The National Rifle Association has given Biden a grade of “F,” reflecting the former vice president’s long-standing efforts to tighten gun regulations

But that still leaves a question: Will Democrats actually act if they take over come January? 

Bigger national priorities in 2009

During the first two years of the Obama presidency, 2009-10, Democrats also had majorities in the House and Senate. Yet President Barack Obama, even after mass shootings like the November 2009 massacre at an army base at Fort Hood, Texas, did not pursue serious gun legislation. To govern is to decide, and he decided not to.

Why? There were bigger national priorities. Obama inherited an economic meltdown; the housing industry had collapsed and unemployment soared to 10% during his first year. 

The Biden website is a gun control advocate’s dream come true: Banning the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and closing assorted loopholes he says contribute to gun violence, to give just two examples. The NRA’s response to all this: “Joe Biden is Full of It.” 

And yet it should be pointed out that Biden, should he win, would face even bigger immediate problems than Obama inherited. He would need a national plan to squelch the Trump pandemic. Unemployment is 10.2%. When millions are out of work, a thousand people a day are dying from a virus and kids can’t go to school, the new president may decide — as Obama did — that action on guns may just have to wait.

Roses with the faces of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School victims in Newtown, Connecticut on Jan. 3, 2013, shortly after the Dec. 14, 2012 shooting.
Roses with the faces of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School victims in Newtown, Connecticut on Jan. 3, 2013, shortly after the Dec. 14, 2012 shooting.

But there’s danger in delay. Obama and Biden came around after the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, and decided that strong, meaningful action on guns was needed. But it was too late. Republicans controlled the House by then, and in 2014 they seized the Senate as well. The Obama era ended with no significant federal legislation passed. 

Losing its influence: The National Rifle Association faces its worst nightmare — accountability

But let’s say that despite a pandemic and economic collapse, a President Biden decided to tackle gun legislation anyway. There’s no question he could get an assault weapons ban through the House, but even a Senate majority might not be enough. Thanks to the filibuster rule, it would take 60 votes to end debate on gun legislation and bring any gun measure to an actual vote. It’s possible that Democrats may take the Senate, but if they do, it will be by a slim majority. 

This in turn has led to talk from Democratic heavyweights like Obama and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer about getting rid of the filibuster. Biden, whose convention featured a moving call for tightening gun laws by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head while meeting with her Arizona constituents in 2011, seems amenable. He told Black and Hispanic journalists earlier this month that the filibuster has “saved a lot of bad things from happening,” but added that “If there’s no way to move other than getting rid of the filibuster, that’s what we’ll do.”

Anti-gun pressure could boomerang

There’s no question the gun industry is under growing pressure. The attorneys general of New York and Washington, D.C. have filed major lawsuits against the NRA. Both allege that the NRA executives have abused the group’s status as a non-profit organization by diverting millions of dollars for everything from personal use to fat no-bid contracts for friends. New York’s Letitia James is even calling for the iconic gun rights group to be dissolved

Aftermath of a shooting: My new film ‘Pearl’ is a love story that grew out of the greatest tragedy of my life

Gun control groups cheer, but they should be careful of what they wish for. President Donald Trump is already using the lawsuits to rev up gun owners, who could be pivotal in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that put him over the top four years ago.

And his convention was a showcase for people conservatives view as gun rights heroes — like Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who stood in front of their St. Louis mansion aiming their guns at Black Lives Matter marchers in the street, and Eric Trump, who claimed (falsely) that “Biden has pledged to … take away your cherished Second Amendment,” and the president himself, who said Democrats would “confiscate your guns and appoint justices who will wipe away your Second Amendment.”

The last thing Democrats need in an election that’s expected to tighten is for angry gun owners to get riled up and vote. 

Paul Brandus, the founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports, is the author of “Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency.” Follow him on Twitter: @WestWingReport

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Health and jobs crises could preoccupy Biden and delay action on guns

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