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Advocates, Biden mark anniversary of gun law, look to future

President says he's ‘optimistic’ about continued efforts to control guns

Sen. Richard Blumenthal hugs gun control advocate and former Rep. Gabby Giffords after her address during the National Safer Communities Summit at the University of Hartford on Friday.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal hugs gun control advocate and former Rep. Gabby Giffords after her address during the National Safer Communities Summit at the University of Hartford on Friday. (John Moore/Getty Images)

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — President Joe Biden told hundreds of activists from across the nation who came to Connecticut on Friday to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of a bipartisan law that more needs to be done to address gun violence.

“We will ban assault weapons in this country,” Biden said as the crowd roared its approval. “We will ban multi-round magazines, we will hold gun makers liable.”

The daylong National Safer Communities Summit at the University of Hartford, organized by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., brought together policymakers, grassroots groups, educators and public health officials. In recent weeks, Biden had addressed similar events focused on abortion rights and environmental protection, and the gathering was part rally and part strategy session as the Democratic president ramps up his reelection campaign.

The presence of survivors of mass shootings and family members who have lost loved ones to gun violence, however, lent a solemn air to Friday’s event.

“Some in this room have turned your pain into purpose,” Biden said. “You’re the reason why I’m so optimistic about the future. … You’re changing our culture. You’re changing our politics.”

Lucy Sarkissian is an 18-year-old from Colorado who survived a shooting at her school and suffers from PTSD. “It is too late to go back and undo what happened to me but it is not too late to prevent it for future generations,” she said, moments before Biden took the stage.

Murphy and other lawmakers lauded the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which was passed by Congress nearly a year ago in response to the mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The legislation was the first significant gun violence prevention measure to win approval in almost 30 years.

Murphy said the measure, which provides funding for youth mental health programs and school security and makes it more difficult for people with mental illness to obtain firearms, is already saving lives. The bill received support from 15 Republicans in the Senate, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R.-Ky. In the House, 14 Republicans voted yes.

Murphy said he was encouraged by the GOP support, which he says will provide a template for future wins on gun safety legislation, including a ban on assault-style weapons. “I believe we are in a moment where we are going to win consistently,” he told the audience.

Obama 2013 visit

This wasn’t the first time the campus has hosted a presidential visit promoting a federal initiative to address gun violence. In April 2013, four months after a gunman entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and fatally shot 20 children and six adults, then-President Barack Obama stood in a gym at the University of Hartford and rallied support for federal background check legislation. The measure was defeated about 10 days later.

But Biden and other Democrats expressed confidence that public opinion is shifting.

President Joe Biden delivers speaks at the National Safer Communities Summit in West Hartford, Conn., on Friday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

“We did pass the most meaningful gun safety law in almost 30 years,” he said. “We did overcome an unrelenting opposition [from] the gun lobby and gun manufacturers and so many politicians who hide behind the belief that they’ll never have to pay a price for their inaction when they oppose common-sense gun legislation and we beat them.”

The bipartisan law includes grants for states to enact “red flag” programs designed to remove weapons from people at risk of harming themselves or others.

It also expands access to school-based mental health counseling services, something Education Secretary Miguel Cardona highlighted at the summit. The legislation provides $1 billion to increase training for school-based social workers, therapists and other mental health professionals and sets aside another $1 billion for school security, Cardona said.

On Friday, Cardona and and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra sent a letter to the nation’s governors that outlined updated guidance making it easier to file Medicaid claims for mental health services provided by schools.

Cardona, who formerly served as education commissioner in Connecticut, rejected calls to arm teachers.

“We don’t pay teachers enough already, so I’m sure as hell not going to stay quiet about fighting for their safety,” he said. “Please don’t get me started on the politicians pushing us to arm teachers. These are the same politicians who don’t trust teachers to chose the right books for our classrooms and now they want to … put guns in their hands? School safety is about more than metal detectors and security cameras. Students need to feel safe enough to share what’s going on in their lives.”

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