Last night, President Joe Biden gave his second State of the Union address. It was difficult to watch at points. Biden made a series of questionable statements like claiming that he added 12 million new jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Biden has only added 2.7 million overall jobs. However, it was his statement on assault weapons that stood out for some of us who have previously flagged his claims as legally and statistically flawed. The claims have not improved with repetition.
The same lines appeared again in the address virtually verbatim from prior campaign speeches:
“Ban assault weapons once and for all.
We did it before. I led the fight to ban them in 1994.
In the 10 years the ban was law, mass shootings went down. After Republicans let it expire, mass shootings tripled.
Let’s finish the job and ban assault weapons again.”
I would truly like to “finish the job” and have the President drop this dubious claim. Biden again does not define what he means by assault weapons. He previously has included 9mm handguns in his proposed ban.
The President is referring to the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act or Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The law banned the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms as well as some large capacity ammunition magazines. That ten-year ban was signed by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994 but expired on September 13, 2004.
That was before the Supreme Court recognized that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to gun ownership in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. The Act was not challenged under the Second Amendment in any major litigation.
Putting aside the constitutional challenges, the President’s factual claim is far from established. Indeed, there is no evidence that the ban had any appreciable impact on gun violence and most studies questioned the impact even on mass shootings. There does appear to have been a decrease during this period and an increase after the period. However, the cause-and-effect claim has never been well-established.
Support for this claim could be based on a 2019 study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery that found that “Mass-shooting related homicides in the United States were reduced during the years of the federal assault weapons ban of 1994 to 2004”. However, the authors said that this reduction was merely “observational” and that the Act was not clearly the cause of the reduction in shootings and deaths.
“A number of factors—including the fact that the banned weapons and magazines were rarely used to commit murders in this country, the limited availability of data on the weapons, other components of the Crime Control Act of 1994, and State and local initiatives implemented at the same time—posed challenges in discerning the effects of the ban.”
Even the Washington Post noted that “Part of the problem is that the assault weapons ban existed for only 10 years, and there are relatively few mass shootings per year, making it difficult to fully assess its impact.” The Post would only say that some studies show the law was “effective.”
A 2020 study published in Criminology and Public Policy found that “bans on assault weapons had no clear effects on either the incidence of mass shootings or on the incidence of victim fatalities from mass shootings.” This study noted that “most mass shootings do not involve assault rifles, but many involve the use of [large caliber magazines].”
A 2004 Justice Department study found little support for this cause-and-effect claim.
The obvious problem with this claim is that mass shootings are statistically rare. It is very hard to associate a decrease to the law, particularly with the abundance of existing weapons and the fact that many shootings do not involve the AR-15 or similar models.
The State of the Union should, in my view, not be just another stump speech. Just as members need to show greater restraint, so should a president.
Of course, we were spared the disgraceful act of “liberated” former Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripping up the speech of former President Donald Trump. It is doubtful that Democrats would be as thrilled and supportive of a “liberated” McCarthy shredding the Biden speech due to his own deep disagreements with it. He did not do so and it helped restored dignity to the chair and decades of traditions.
I admit that I am a bit of a purest on the decorum question. Kevin McCarthy could be seen mouthing words and shaking his head. It was reminiscent of the controversy over Justice Sam Alito mouthing objections in response to President Barack Obama. While it paled in comparison to the offensive conduct of his predecessor (who also would shake her head and roll her eyes behind Trump), it was still inappropriate in my view. The Speaker represents the entire body of the House of Representatives — Democratic and Republican — in the State of the Union. As difficult as it may be at times, it is better to remain stoic.
The worst part was the yelling and heckling from Republican members. They were clearly baited by the President and it worked. As I tweeted last night, it was wrong when the Democrats did it and it is wrong now when Republicans do it. At one point, Biden was called a “liar” for again claiming that Republicans want to cut social security (a position rejected repeatedly by the vast majority of Republicans). Biden responded that he was not saying “I’m not saying it’s a majority.” It was still a low blow. However, I continue to follow the old school view that members should remain respectful and silent. To his credit, McCarthy was seen glaring at some colleagues and on at least on occasion telling them to “Shush.”
The State of the Union captured the state of our politics and it is not good. While calling for unity, Biden took cheap shots at his opponents on issues like social security while Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R, Ga.) screamed “Liar.” We have lost the civility and, with it, the dignity of such historic moments. Joe Biden is our President. He is granted entry to the House once a year for this constitutional function. He is entitled to a respectful audience. He is also expected to be respectful and accurate in his own words. He also failed that test.
Things will not change in our country until we demand more from both parties and all of our leaders. Fortunately, my children are older now, but I always had them listen to the State of the Union addresses. I would have been mortified to have them watch this spectacle of sparing between the President and members last night. It goes against everything that we have sought to instill in them about mutual respect and civility.