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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Urges Action on Gun Violence Prevention
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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Urges Action on Gun Violence Prevention

Plus: Imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny deteriorates as Russian authorities continue to deny him access to necessary medical care.

Happy Friday! Sure feels like the perfect weekend to watch some golf and fall asleep on the couch in the middle of the afternoon.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • President Joe Biden announced on Thursday a series of executive actions he plans to take to combat the “epidemic” and “international embarrassment” of gun violence in the United States. He directed the DOJ to issue proposed rules to “stop the proliferation of ghost guns” and reclassify pistols with stabilizing braces to “treat them … with the seriousness they deserve,” as well as publish model “red flag” legislation for states to adopt. President Biden also announced his intent to nominate David Chipman to serve as Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. 

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced Thursday the agency picked up nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children at the southern border in March, nearly double the previous high of 11,475 in May 2019. In all, CBP said it encountered 172,000 people along the Southwest border last month, a 71 percent increase from February.

  • According to the Washington Post, the Biden administration is spending at least $60 million per week to shelter unaccompanied migrant children in Department of Health and Human Services facilities. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called on the Biden administration to close one such facility in San Antonio after he heard allegations of migrant children housed there being abused and sexually assaulted. Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services is investigating the claims.

  • White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that Russia has positioned more troops along its border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. 

  • Rioters in Northern Ireland have injured dozens of police officers over the past several days as unrest over Brexit’s impact on the United Kingdom spreads.

  • The United States confirmed 80,803 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 6.7 percent of the 1,200,667 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,004 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 560,090. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 36,295 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, 3,403,061 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, with 112,046,611 Americans having now received at least one dose.

Biden’s Gun Orders 

In the wake of two awful mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado last month, President Biden called on Congress to strengthen background checks for gun purchases and implement more stringent federal gun control measures. Yesterday, Biden announced executive orders on several policy issues where, he said, he could effect change without congressional help.

“Every day in this country, 316 people are shot,” Biden said. “Every single day. A hundred and six of them die every day. … This is an epidemic, for God’s sake. And it has to stop. So I’m here to talk about two things: First, the steps we’re going to take immediately, and second, the action that needs to be taken going forward to curb the epidemic of gun violence.”

No matter how fervent Biden’s desire to see the federal government regulate guns more closely, his unilateral authority in the area is limited. Accordingly, his executive orders were relatively narrow in scope. One asks the DOJ to better regulate so-called “ghost guns”—guns assembled at home, often from kits, that are not regulated like guns bought from licensed dealers.

Another takes aim at stabilizing braces, a cheap accessory for some pistols that helps to manage recoil while firing, similar to the stock of a rifle. The pistol used by the shooter in Boulder allegedly had such a stabilizing brace.

A third order is more sweeping in scope, but also nonbinding: Biden directed the Justice Department to create model legislation for “red flag” laws to make it easier for interested states to pass them. Under such laws, which already exist in nearly 20 states, a person can be temporarily deemed unfit to possess a firearm if close contacts present evidence they are a risk to themselves or others. While not universally embraced, these laws are the rare area of gun control policy on which there is some bipartisan agreement. Former President Donald Trump praised red flag laws in mid-2019, although he never urged Congress to pass a federal version of the legislation. (The Dispatch’s own David French has also long been an advocate for such laws.)

Biden also reiterated his previous calls for the Senate to pass several bills to strengthen background checks on gun buyers and to allow gun manufacturers to be held liable if their products are used to commit crimes. 

Sen. Pat Toomey—the Pennsylvania Republican who has bucked his party on guns since the Sandy Hook shooting—expressed optimism on Thursday that there is a deal to be struck. “If done in a manner that respects the rights of law-abiding citizens,” he told Politico, “I believe there is an opportunity to strengthen our background check system so that we are better able to keep guns away from those who have no legal right to them.”

But Toomey holds a minority position in the GOP; in his remarks, Biden predicted and dismissed Republican objections to his orders and legislative asks. “Nothing I’m about to recommend in any way impinges on the Second Amendment,” he claimed. “They’re phony, arguments suggesting that these are Second Amendment rights at stake from what we’re talking about. But no amendment to the Constitution is absolute. … From the very beginning that the Second Amendment existed, certain people weren’t allowed to have weapons.”

(Biden’s assertion that objections to his proposals were phony was perhaps undercut by a number of false and misleading statements he made during the event, including that gun shows are currently exempt from federal background checks and that the gun industry is “exempt from being sued.”)

At any rate, if he thought Republicans would be unimpressed, he was right. “President Biden has ordered the DOJ to issue new rules that will surely result in unconstitutional overreach,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. “Republicans will strongly oppose and pursue every option—be it legislative or judicial—to protect the right to keep and bear arms from infringement by this administration.”  

“The Second Amendment is absolute,” tweeted Rep. Lauren Boebert, a freshman Republican who has built her brand on aggressive pro-firearm advocacy. “Anyone who says otherwise is a tyrant.”

Making unilateral but comparatively minute changes to policy while urging the legislature to take more aggressive steps is not a traditional move of tyrants. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the changes are good policy. In particular, the likely ban on stabilizing braces seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the Colorado shooting. In that respect, it calls to mind then-President Trump’s move in 2018 to ban another accessory, bump stocks, after one was used by a mass shooter in Las Vegas.

But there’s a significant qualitative difference between the two presidents’ moves. The bump stock ban made sense because of what a bump stock does: harness the recoil from a semiautomatic weapon—in which one pull of the trigger fires one bullet—in such a way as to fire nearly as rapidly as an automatic weapon. Automatic weapons are banned under federal law; bump stocks were simply an aftermarket gadget designed to skirt that regulation—and one that significantly increased the weapon’s ability to cause indiscriminate carnage. The use of one in Vegas—to deadly effect—shone a spotlight on this fact.

Meanwhile, what does a stabilizing brace do? It allows the user to brace a pistol against their forearm. The policy imperative here is less clear.

“The gun brace, the question is, is it meaningfully used in crime? No,” Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, told The Dispatch. “Two, does it meaningfully contribute to the lethality of the weapon? I mean, you could get into some really arcane arguments about the time it takes to put the gun back on target. But you’re not going to see a big difference. And three, there are probably three to four million of these in private hands; they’re really kind of a cheap accessory. … So the question is … if people own a little gun accessory, do we want to turn them into felons?”

Navalny’s Health Deteriorates

For the second time this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the Morning Dispatch headlines. Within just a few days, the autocrat has formalized legislation to bypass presidential term limits, massed troops and armaments at the Ukrainian border, and come under renewed fire for continuing to deny imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny access to necessary medical care.

The 44-year-old Navalny—who was sentenced to 32 months in prison by a Russian court earlier this year on charges many in the international community deem bogus—began a hunger strike on March 31 to persuade penitentiary service officials to allow him to see a physician for debilitating back and leg pain. He has since developed a fever, respiratory problems, and the loss of sensation in his hands and legs. Navalny’s rapidly deteriorating health is believed to be the combined outcome of his August Novichok poisoning—for which Putin’s agents are widely believed to be responsible, though Putin denies it—suspected tuberculosis, and cramped and unsanitary conditions.

In a series of Instagram posts, Navalny has detailed treatment in the penal colony akin to torture. The politician described guards deliberately waking him up hourly and frying chicken near his cell to tempt him out of his hunger strike. Over the course of the last three weeks, Navalny has lost 30 lbs. in a last ditch effort to seek help for his health concerns.

Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of the Russian Alliance of Doctors and Navalny’s personal doctor, was detained by Russian authorities Tuesday for requesting access to her patient. 

“Russia, the Russian authorities, may be placing him into a situation of a slow death and seeking to hide what is happening to him,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general, told Reuters. They “have already attempted to kill him, they are now detaining him, and imposing prison conditions, that amount to torture.”

Jim Townsend, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, agreed. “They tried to kill him once and it didn’t work,” he told The Dispatch. “Now that they’ve got him in their clutches, they’re going to try to do it again.”

There’s precedent for what Callamard and Townsend described, most famously the death of Sergei Magnitsky. The Russian government held the Ukraine-born Russian lawyer and tax adviser for 358 days—without trial—in a Moscow prison after he unearthed evidence of fraud and theft by high-ranking officials. Like Navalny, Magnitsky was systematically denied necessary medical attention.

“This is exact deja-vu from the Magnitsky case. The medical neglect that Putin is inflicting on Alexei Navalny is deliberate and Putin wants the world to know he’s doing it,” said Bill Browder, on behalf of whom Magnitsky was investigating. Browder has since launched the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign, which pushes for sanctions and visa restrictions to target human rights abusers worldwide.

“We don’t see any parallels [between the two men],” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month, “apart from the fact that unfortunately, the deceased Magnitsky was convicted and sentenced. Navalny is also convicted and sentenced.”

It’s likely that the piecemeal sabotage of Navalny’s health by prison guards is part of a broader effort to dodge international and domestic backlash. But at least some in Russian civil society have taken notice. In an online registration, publicized on Navalny’s Instagram account in March, more than 411,000 people in Russia and Eastern Europe have pledged to attend rallies demanding his release. “The main way to do this is through street actions. We will announce the nearest of them when 500,000 people are ready to go to the rally on this site,” it reads. “Register, post on social networks, hang flyers at the entrance, wear things with symbols – let the whole country know about the campaign.”

Demonstrations calling for Navalny’s release gained steam in January and February of this year, but were swiftly and severely put down by the Putin regime through the mass detention of protesters.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the Biden administration is “disturbed” by Navalny’s deteriorating health and called for his “immediate release.” State Department spokesman Ned Price added yesterday that the administration has “made abundantly clear that we will continue to hold Moscow to account” if Putin “continues down this road.” But there are limits to what the U.S. and its allies can do to curb the Kremlin other than ensure that Navalny’s story continues to get exposure.

“The most we can do is not allow what’s happening to him to fade into the background and be forgotten,” Townsend said. “It’s really up to the West to keep his fate and his condition upfront to make sure that people in Russia know what their government is doing to this opposition leader.”

Worth Your Time

  • Kevin Williamson knows what he’s talking about when it comes to guns, which makes his take on President Biden’s executive actions all the more worth reading. “The Democrats are not batting 1.000, but this is probably about as close as they are going to get, and we gun-rights advocates should take this opportunity to meet the other side more than halfway, as they have moved more than halfway in our direction,” he writes. “There is room here for cooperation and compromise. But where the conversation really needs to get up to speed is in the fact that advocates such as [former Brady Campaign director Dan] Gross and policymakers in the Biden administration remain too particularly focused on what goes on between federally licensed firearms dealers and the people who do business with them. Most of the illicit trafficking in firearms in this country isn’t happening at sporting-goods stores subject to federal oversight — it is happening out of the trunks of cars in St. Louis and Dallas.”

  • In the New York Times yesterday, Gina Kolata told the story of Katalin Kariko, the Hungarian-American scientist whose years of research on messenger RNA (mRNA) laid the foundation for Pfizer and Moderna’s miracle vaccines. She’s never made more than $60,000 per year, but her passion for biochemistry has driven a decades-long career at the University of Pennsylvania. “On Nov. 8, the first results of the Pfizer-BioNTech study came in, showing that the mRNA vaccine offered powerful immunity to the new virus,” Kolata writes. “Dr. Kariko turned to her husband. ‘Oh, it works,’ she said. ‘I thought so.’ To celebrate, she ate an entire box of Goobers chocolate-covered peanuts. By herself.”

  • Those of you who’ve been following The Dispatch since before it was The Dispatch might remember our placeholder URL was www.reagan35x.com, named for the worst airport terminal in America, known for its uncomfortable transportation and seemingly interminable waits. The Dispatch is here to stay, but DCA’s Gate 35X is about to be officially put out of its misery—and not a moment too soon. Dan Zak writes its obituary in the Washington Post. “It was a bus station. A bus station in an airport. It was two places you’d rather not be, melded into one place,” he muses. “Gate 35X was the great equalizer. It made big shots small. In the span of five hours, a corporate lobbyist could go from Grey Goose at Cafe Milano to meat sweats on a sardined bus — ‘Next time, Cynthia, get me out of a real gate’ — along with a troop of Boy Scouts that was entirely too punchy for the predawn hour.”

Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • On the website today: Tim Morrison on how the Biden administration should handle testing from the Chinese government, and Jonah Goldberg on Georgia’s new election law and the rhetoric surrounding it.

  • David engages in some light punditry in his Thursday French Press (🔒), arguing that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has emerged as a potential way through Trumpism. “How do you hold an angry base while recapturing suburbanites who were repulsed by the incompetence and corruption of the Trump administration?” David asks. “Perhaps by governing well and fighting hard for a righteous cause. If that’s the playbook, then DeSantis has an early edge—and he’s gained that edge almost entirely on his own, without the meaningful assistance of the GOP leader he may well replace.”

  • The Trump administration struck a deal with the Taliban last year that all foreign forces—including NATO forces and an estimated 3,500 U.S. troops—would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 2021. Considering it’s now April, the Biden administration clearly won’t be meeting that deadline. In his latest Vital Interests (🔒), Thomas Joscelyn explains why Biden shouldn’t make concessions to the Taliban, even if they’re in the form of a political settlement. “The Taliban has consistently referred to the Afghan government as an illegitimate ‘puppet’ of the U.S.,” he writes, “meaning that true compromise is off limits.”

  • Tune in to Thursday’s Advisory Opinions, where David and Sarah chat about Google v. Oracle, Justice Stephen Breyer’s Scalia Lecture, misdemeanor prosecutions, a new study on religious liberty’s winning streak, and a Native American adoption law case.

  • And on Thursday’s edition of The Remnant, Jonah spoke to Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw. They discussed congressional dysfunction, freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Crenshaw’s favorite moment of 2021 thus far.

Let Us Know

What Alexei Navalny is doing in Russia takes guts. What’s the most stunning feat of human bravery you’ve witnessed in your own life?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).