Wearing a funereal dark suit, white shirt, and muted tie, Joe Biden delivered Thursday night one of the most somber White House speeches in recent history. Biden even dispensed with the customary “Good evening” or “My fellow Americans” in introducing his 17-minute address appealing— almost begging—for anti-gun legislation.
Biden wisely kept his oratory simple and restrained, with the only true flourishes coming as he invoked the word “enough” 12 separate times for emphasis. If rhetoric alone could tame the nation’s out-of-control gun culture, then Barack Obama’s eloquent words after Sandy Hook and the 2015 shooting in Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church would have inspired lasting legislation.
This was just Biden’s third prime-time White House address—and the decision to try to commandeer the nation’s attention at dinnertime had both its political and legislative components. Biden had multiple audiences in mind Thursday night: Democratic voters eager for a fighting president; middle-of-the-road parents appalled by death stalking the classroom; rational gun owners; and Senate Republicans in negotiations over legislation that might survive the inevitable filibuster.
The insoluble problem embedded in Biden’s well-crafted speech was that the needs of these constituencies conflicted with each other. The result was a speech that embodied all the internal contradictions of the gun debate.
Speaking to the passions of Democrats, the president unequivocally declared, “We need to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.” But a few minutes later, Biden downsized his ambitions by focusing on what might be legislatively attainable in the Senate as he said, “If we can’t ban assault weapons, as we should, we must at least raise the age to be able to purchase one to 21.” Going from an outright ban to an age limitation is akin to the difference between Prohibition and the current drinking laws set at 21.
Like virtually every Democratic politician talking nervously about guns, Biden took pains to bow respectfully in the direction of “the culture and the tradition and the concerns of lawful gun owners.” Then Biden pivoted to quoting Antonin Scalia—the Supreme Court justice revered by conservatives—who stated, “Like most rights … the rights granted by the Second Amendment are not unlimited.”
Scalia’s words were cleverly taken from the majority opinion in the sweeping 2008 Heller decision that upheld the rights of individual gun owners under the Second Amendment. Liberal justice John Paul Stevens called Heller “the most clearly incorrect decision that the Supreme Court announced during my tenure on the bench.” But Biden never mentioned that the current hard-right Supreme Court is poised to further eviscerate gun laws in a decision coming within weeks in a New York case about regulating concealed firearms.
With the Democrats facing a dire outlook in the midterm elections, the smartest political move for Biden would have been to demonize the Republicans as the armed-to-the-teeth party beholden to the gun lobby. The president tried a few feints in this direction by calling the opposition of most GOP senators to any new gun laws “unconscionable.”
But Biden carefully avoided lambasting individual Republicans. There was no reference to Ted Cruz and his ludicrous idea that schools should only have one heavily fortified door. Nor did Biden mention that a certain former Republican president, along with Cruz, eagerly pandered to the NRA convention in Texas before many of the children killed in Uvalde were buried.
Biden’s message was muddled by Senate arithmetic—with the filibuster in place, Democrats need at least 10 Republican votes to pass any gun legislation, however tepid. As a result, Biden was reduced to begging, “This time, we have to take the time to do something. And this time, it’s time for the Senate to do something.”
In his speech, Biden identified more than a dozen legislative reforms that would have at least some ability to reduce the “carnage” from mass shootings that afflicts the nation daily. It was all part of Biden’s plea to do something—to do anything—to show that Congress can respond in the wake of Buffalo and Uvalde and now Tulsa.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the new White House press secretary, candidly said before the speech that Biden was “making sure that the American people know he is continuing to speak on their behalf in making sure we get some action taken.” Her implicit message: If anything comes out of the Senate negotiations, Biden wants to share in the credit.
There is, to be sure, a logic to the do-something argument. Cracking the Senate’s decades-long refusal to pass any gun legislation could be seen as a symbol of the waning power of the gun lobby. If, say, expanded background checks could pass this year, it might open up the gates for a new assault weapons ban later in the decade. Of course, no reform currently on the congressional agenda could completely eliminate school shootings, as Biden himself acknowledged. And the danger is that the Second Amendment fanatics will use any future massacres to cynically claim that gun laws don’t work.
Biden did what he could Thursday night to demonstrate that the president is still relevant as more than the nation’s Mourner in Chief. But the sad truth is that any legislation requires 10 brave Senate Republicans. And despite notes of optimism emanating from Capitol Hill, good luck finding that rarest of political species—reasonable Republicans.