US President Joe Biden embraced victims of a mass shooting on Tuesday hours after he issued an executive order to reinforce gun sale background checks in what White House called the most comprehensive policy the president can enact without Congress.
Travelling to the Asian American enclave of Monterey Park neighbouring Los Angeles, Biden empathised with survivors of a Jan 21 mass shooting that killed 11 people. He also touted an executive order that bolsters background checks for gun buyers and strengthens federal support for state red flag laws that intend to stop gun sales to people deemed dangerous.
"I'm here on behalf of the American people to mourn with you, to pray with you, to let you know you are loved and not alone," Biden told an audience in Monterey Park, a city of 60,000 that is 65% Asian, according to US Census data.
After his speech, Biden met privately with families of the victims and first responders, the White House said.
The shooting at a dance hall on Lunar New Year killed 11 and wounded nine, unnerving a close-knit community. Biden's executive order also calls for the federal government to respond to mass shootings much like it does to a natural disaster, suggesting Washington provide trauma counselling and financial assistance to communities like Monterey Park.
The heart of the executive order seeks to expand background checks intended to prevent felons or domestic abusers from buying guns, largely by leaning on federally licensed gun dealers to comply or educating others who may not realise they are required to run background checks under existing law, the White House said.
With more than 40,000 US gun deaths per year, Biden is betting voters in the 2024 presidential election will favour more proactive gun control. Republicans seeking their party's nomination to challenge Democrat Biden in 2024 are certain to favour more expansive gun rights, backed by influential groups such as the National Rifle Association.
The Biden administration is pointing to poll results showing most Americans support background checks.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll last year found 84% of respondents supported background checks for all firearms sales and 70% backed red flag laws. That survey was taken immediately after a gunman opened fire at a school in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 students and two teachers.
Some gun rights advocates oppose background checks, saying they infringe on constitutional rights to possess arms while failing to stop criminals from getting them. They also contend many red flag laws trample on due process rights.
Gun rights groups disparaged Biden's order as rehashing existing law while threatening personal freedoms.
"The Biden administration should demand that soft-on-crime prosecutors and lawmakers use the laws already in existence to lock up criminals that misuse firearms to prey on innocent Americans," said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of NSSF, the largest firearms trade industry group.
Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, said in a statement that Biden is "aiming to be the most anti-gun president in our nation's history."
The president last year signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the most significant gun control legislation in 30 years.
Since then, the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives, ending virtually any chance of more gun legislation for the next two years, such as Biden's proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Even so, Biden called on Congress to act, lamenting that a 1994 ban on assault weapons was retired 10 years later.
"So let's finish the job," the president said. "Ban assault weapons. Ban them again. Do it now. Enough. Do something, do something big."