Just months into President Joe Biden's tenure, his early calls for "unity" look not only insincere—something we expect of any politician—but positively laughable. Last week, he threatened executive action to tighten restrictions on privately owned firearms in a move bound to infuriate gun owners, including millions of people who purchased tools for self-defense for the first time amid the chaos of the past year. Much of the country is certain to ignore his dictates, including state and local governments who have already vowed that they won't enforce such rules. Forget unity—the president has found an effective means of deepening the country's divisions.
"I asked the Attorney General and his team to identify for me immediate, concrete actions I could can take now without having to go through the Congress," the president huffed from the White House on April 8. "And today, I'm announcing several initial steps my administration is taking to curb this epidemic of gun violence."
The legality and wisdom of his proposed restrictions on arm braces and "ghost guns" aside—Jacob Sullum ably dissected those schemes elsewhere—Biden's plan to bypass Congress is a wild departure from his insistence at his inauguration that "my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation." After all, he's bypassing Congress specifically because lawmakers are very definitely not unified around an anti-gun agenda. That includes Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), from Biden's own party.
Also not unified around attempts to restrict self-defense rights are states and localities the federal government relies on for most of the muscle to enforce its laws.
"On Thursday President Biden is expected to announce a series of executive actions addressing gun violence," Arizona's ABC 15 affiliate noted before the president's speech. "No matter what those actions are, there is a very good chance that in Arizona, they'll be ignored." The news story came after Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill prohibiting all political subdivisions of the state from using personnel or resources to enforce laws incompatible with Arizona's own gun regulations.
Wait. States can go their own way on gun policy? You bet.
"Although the federal government may use its power of the purse to encourage states to adopt certain criminal laws, it is limited by the Tenth Amendment—which prevents the federal government from directing states to enact specific legislation—in its ability to directly influence state policy or requiring state officials to enforce federal law," a 2014 Congressional Research Service report concluded with regard to marijuana. The results of the constitutional principle are seen in the in the states that have legalized marijuana, as well as sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. Guns are just another area in which states can tell the feds to enforce their own laws without local assistance.
Many individual gun fanciers are equally unimpressed by the president's desire to limit access to firearms. In March, as gun control bills worked their way through Congress and Biden hinted at executive action, FBI background checks for commercial firearm sales hit a new record at almost 4.7 million, up from 3.7 million a year earlier. The AR-15 pistols and DIY gun kits targeted by the president's orders are in especially high demand among buyers picking them up while they're still available. Presumably, people rushing to pay rising prices for soon-to-be restricted items aren't doing so because of their eagerness to surrender them once the rules change.
So much for unity.
Biden doesn't require state, local, or individual cooperation for his pick to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, but the selection of David Chipman is a clear indicator that "unity" isn't a priority at the moment. As an advisor to Giffords, a group dedicated to severely restricting self-defense rights, Chipman mocked gun owners, saying in 2020, "They might think that they're die-hard, ready to go, but unfortunately they're more like Tiger King and they're putting themselves and their family in danger." He also advocates to the point of dishonesty for the federal government's bloody conduct during the 1993 Waco fiasco. His nomination is a red flag to gun owners.
"David Chipman, whom President Biden seeks to empower in order to continue his long train of abuses going back to the Waco, Texas murders committed by agents of the federal government, has led a career marked by outright lies, opportunism, and a brazen willingness, if not outright desire, to assault the natural rights of the American people," the pro-gun Firearms Policy Coalition objected.
There's no guarantee that Chipman will formally gain the ATF post (only one nominee has been confirmed to the position since Senate approval was first required in 2006) but no "unity" can be found in an appointee who is openly contemptuous of, and despised by, a large segment of the population.
That's a large and growing segment of the population, as FBI figures demonstrate. Nine of the ten top recorded weeks for firearm background checks occurred in the past year, and two of them were last month. Last year concluded with a total of 39.7 million background checks, the highest annual count recorded. While there's not a one-to-one correlation between background checks and sales, there's no doubt that ownership is through the roof, including millions of new owners: "40 percent of sales were conducted to purchasers who have never previously owned a firearm," the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association, revealed last August.
Gun ownership is increasingly diverse, too. It's surging among African-Americans repelled by biased law enforcement. It's also soaring among people with left-of-center political views who would normally be expected to constitute the constituency for tighter restrictions and nominees like Chipman. These new owners joined the ranks of people who realize that a chaotic era and a politically divided population require them to look to themselves for self-defense rather than rely on government institutions. Biden is going to face some challenges convincing even many of those who voted for him to unite behind his attacks on their ability to defend themselves.
Of course, politicians often rely not on a united population, but on one that's fragmented in ways that help them attain and hold office. Despite his inaugural verbiage, that's certainly what Joe Biden is doing. Like many of his predecessors, he strokes just enough of the population to maintain power while antagonizing the rest. That's been an effective strategy for lots of political officials who don't care about the long-term consequences, but it's brought the country to brink of disaster and made thoughts of unity a national joke.