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Biden mourns with families of California shooting victims and moves to close gun loophole

A solemn President Joe Biden signed an executive order to close gun registration loopholes as he delivered what amounted to a eulogy for 11 people shot to death as they celebrated the Lunar New Year in a Southern California suburb.

Biden recited names of the mostly immigrant victims, recalling the love of family and community that brought them to the dance hall in January, as well as the pain that will linger with their families and made the small city another in a long line of places made infamous by violence.

“As a nation, we remember them — immigrants from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan — all of whom found a home in America,” Biden said before meeting privately with some of the families at a Boys and Girls Club near the site of the Jan. 21 shooting.

His remarks framed what the White House portrayed as a significant advance in gun safety, an executive order intended to move the U.S. as close to universal background checks as possible without additional legislation.

The executive action directs Attorney General Merrick Garland to close a gray area in existing gun sales laws that have allowed some vendors to operate without conducting background checks. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Biden signed into law last summer, requires anyone who sells firearms for profit to run background checks. Garland will be tasked with defining who qualifies as a gun dealer.

“It’s just common sense to check whether someone is a felon, a domestic abuser before they buy a gun,” Biden said.

Among other directives, the executive order asked Biden’s Cabinet to focus on public awareness campaigns around red flag laws and safe gun storage and encouraged the Federal Trade Commission to publish a report on how manufacturers market firearms to adults and minors. The action also calls for his administration to speed up the implementation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

The president’s move comes as state leaders renewed calls for federal action amid a violent start to 2023, which has already witnessed 164 victims in 110 mass shootings — incidents where at least four people are shot.

“I know what it’s like to get that call,” Biden told the crowd on Tuesday. “… I know what it’s like to lose a loved one so suddenly. It’s like losing a piece of your soul.”

While the White House has made historic strides on gun policy, the flurry of mass shootings this year has spurred a renewed pressure campaign from gun safety advocates. Now with a split Congress, gun safety groups have said Biden has a responsibility to roll out further reform. Advocates have pushed administration officials on Tuesday’s executive order for months.

Biden used his speech to re-up his calls for lawmakers to take further action on gun violence.

“Let’s be clear: None of this absolves Congress from the responsibility of acting,” he said. “Pass universal background checks. Eliminate gun manufacturer immunity and liability. And I’m determined, once again, to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines.”

Two of the three deadliest mass shootings this year have taken place in California, according to the Gun Violence Archive, despite the state having some of the country’s strictest firearm policies and a gun death rate 37 percent below the national average. Just days after the Monterey Park shooting, a disgruntled worker killed seven people at a mushroom farm in rural Half Moon Bay.

In the case of the Monterey Park shooting, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna has said the semi-automatic handgun used by the 72-year-old gunman was most likely acquired illegally.

State leaders nationally have also said more needs to be done at the federal level in light of a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down New York’s concealed carry law. That has given rise to subsequent challenges to state gun laws, including California’s longstanding ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and a provision barring 18-to-20-year-olds from buying semi automatic weapons.

After Tuesday’s speech, Biden was scheduled to meet with first responders and victims’ families as he has done so many times before in the wake of a mass tragedy. He’ll once again be surrounded by immense grief, just as he was in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y., less than a year ago.

But he ended Tuesday’s remarks with a line of hope. It’s a piece of advice he’s shared with other survivors and family members along the way — something he draws from his own experiences with grief.

“It takes time, but I promise you,” Biden said. “I promise you, the day will come when the memory of your loved one will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.”