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Biden must take on challenge of gun control

On Monday, the state and nation marked the terrible anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, eight years ago. Murdered were 20 first-graders, six adult educators, and the mother of the shooter. The killer died by suicide.

On that unforgettable day there was shock, sadness and national mourning, deepened by the tragedy’s proximity to the holiday season. President Obama, moved to tears, called it the toughest day of his presidency. There was also widespread belief that the slaughter, carried out by a demented killer using a semi-automatic assault rifle, would finally lead to reasonable gun-control legislation.

While Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who had the awful responsibility of informing parents their children would not return to them, worked with the legislature to pass thoughtful gun reform here in Connecticut — including a ban on the sale of such assault weapons and on large-capacity magazines — Congress would not be moved to action and the gun lobby again prevailed.

Sadly, in the years since, that has remained the case despite mass killings in places such as Charleston, Las Vegas, El Paso and Parkland, Fla. There have been changes at the state level, but no movement on federal legislation.

Now Joe Biden prepares to take office on Jan. 20, a Democrat who ran on a platform that included support for gun control.

Though the challenge Biden faces on the issue is formidable, progress can and should be made. There are some measures Biden can take using executive authority. He also can use the bully pulpit of the presidency to overcome resistance in Congress — largely from Republicans but also some Democrats — to pass some sensible reforms that are popular with the American public, including many gun owners.

Other reforms remain politically out of reach.

Using executive powers, Biden can restore a rule approved by President Obama. It required the Social Security Administration to feed into the gun-buying background check system the names of its recipients with mental disorders judged so severe that they cannot work or manage their own benefit checks. Inexplicably, President Trump scrapped the rule. Even if it prevents one person who is unfit to own a deadly weapon from getting a gun, reinstituting the rule would be worth it.

One thing the Trump administration did rightly do on gun control is ban the sale of new bump stocks in early 2019 and require current owners to surrender or destroy them. The regulation change followed, though too slowly, the Oct. 1, 2017, killing of 60 concert goers in Las Vegas, with 867 injured. The victims were fired upon by a shooter using the devices that functionally turn a semi-automatic rifle into an outlawed automatic. Biden’s task is making sure the regulation is adhered to.

Using the power of the presidency, Biden can repair the “fugitive from justice” rule. The FBI long interpreted the rule to include in the background check system anyone with an outstanding arrest warrant. In purging 500,000 records from the system, the Trump administration narrowed the fugitive definition to include only those who had fled a state with the purpose of avoiding prosecution (how the FBI would read minds was not spelled out).

Once sworn-in, Biden needs to immediately establish the former, proper, rule.

Finally, Biden can follow-up on a campaign promise to order the FBI to evaluate how many gun owners were able to obtain weapons because a background check was not completed in three days, and how many checks were not completed in 10 days.

The dates are significant. Currently, under the “Charleston loophole,” a weapon can be sold if a background check is not completed in three days. That is why the killer who, in 2015, gunned down nine people in a historically Black Charleston church, was able to get the weapon he used. Biden wants Congress to increase the cut-off time to 10 days. It should.

Harder, but not impossible, is pushing Congress to require background checks for all gun transactions, with the exception of family exchanges. Gun-show and online buyers slip through an existing loophole, accounting for an estimated one in five firearms sold.

We’d also like to see the federal 1994 assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004, restored along with a ban on large-capacity magazines. And “smart-guns,” which can be fired only by authorized users, should be the new manufacturing standard. But, politically, these seem beyond reach.

But not being able to get everything cannot be an excuse for not doing anything. Eight years on, Biden must make gun control a priority.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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