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September 25, 2023

Biden forms gun violence prevention office sought by advocates

YEHYUN KIM / CT MIRROR President Joe Biden speaks at the National Safer Communities Summit at the University of Hartford on Friday, June 16, 2023.

The White House on Friday announced a new initiative that has been a key goal for gun safety advocates and Connecticut lawmakers in Congress: the formation of the first-ever gun violence prevention office.

For years, advocates urged the federal government to create such a role that would put in place a coordinated response aimed at reducing gun violence, particularly in the absence of additional legislation on gun safety like an assault weapons ban and universal background checks.

In response to that push, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., proposed legislation in March that would create a similar role, though their proposed office looked a bit different from the one ultimately established by Biden. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was the main cosponsor of the Senate version of the bill.

But with little movement in Congress on new gun bills, Biden moved ahead with an executive order creating the Office of Gun Violence Prevention within the White House, which will be overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris and includes gun safety advocates Stefanie Feldman, Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox. The office will also play a role in continuing to implement the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the major gun safety bill passed by Congress last year.

“I’ll continue to urge Congress to take commonsense actions that the majority of Americans support, like enacting universal background checks and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines,” Biden said in a statement.

“But in the absence of that sorely needed action, the Office of Gun Violence Prevention along with the rest of my administration will continue to do everything it can to combat the epidemic of gun violence that is tearing our families, our communities, and our country apart,” he added.

Murphy and Blumenthal were invited to Biden’s announcement at the White House, but neither was unable to attend. Blumenthal had prior speaking commitments in Connecticut, and Murphy spoke about gun reforms in Austin, Texas, earlier on Friday at The Texas Tribune Festival. As co-authors of the bill, Frost introduced Biden at Friday’s event, and the president gave Murphy a shout-out for his work on this effort.

While it will currently be funded and staffed by the Biden administration, the office will be under the full control of future presidents who could decide to defund or scrap it. Because of that, lawmakers would still like to pass legislation to make it a permanent fixture in the White House.

“The anti-gun-violence movement has been advocating for an office dedicated to this work for a long time,” Murphy said in a statement. “This office is going to make sure the full potential of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is realized, and I’ll continue my push to codify it and ensure ending gun violence remains a top priority for future administrations.”

Blumenthal said he would consider changing their current legislation to ensure the permanence of Biden’s new office. His bill with Murphy — the Office of Gun Violence Prevention Act of 2023 — has very similar goals but would have created a permanent office within the U.S. Department of Justice.

The sponsors of the bill argued an office would establish a centralized place within the federal government to address gaps in research, offer policy recommendations, enhance the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and give Congress an annual report about gun violence.

When asked if the White House spoke with them about their legislation, Blumenthal said “they threw a little bit of cold water on it” when he first brought up the idea of having the office at the DOJ but that there was interest in a coordinated effort at the federal level. Blumenthal said he believes having it in the office of the president is a natural fit and a “major step forward.”

“They’ve been very sympathetic to the coordinating entity, and an official with the mandate and visibility,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “We thought it was natural for the White House to do. The way they structured it is very wise.”

“At the end of the day, the president’s support is so important to have adequate funding and authority,” he added. “It is in the office of the president, [so] he has control over the resources of it.”

Republicans have been largely resistant to such legislation, and any gun-related bill will face more legislative hurdles since the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act now that the House is narrowly controlled by the GOP.

Earlier this year, Murphy said he had “early conversations” with GOP co-authors of the bipartisan gun safety law. He said he is hopeful for their support because they have seen firsthand “the need for resources and focus and direction.”

Fifteen Republican senators and 14 House Republicans voted for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, but none of them has signed onto the bill. After the legislation was introduced in March, two of the lead GOP negotiators signaled it was unlikely to get support from Republicans.

So far, there are 88 House cosponsors for the Office of Gun Violence Prevention Act of 2023. All are Democrats.

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