President Biden’s nominee for attorney general Merrick Garland on Monday said there’s legal room for new federal gun control and he wouldn’t rule out policies that ban certain types of guns.
Garland, a federal appeals court judge, told senators at his confirmation hearing that Biden supports new limits and that his job would be to pursue them.
“As I’m sure you know, the president is a strong supporter of gun control and has been an advocate all of his life, professional life, on this question. The role of the Justice Department is to advance the policy program of the administration as long as it is consistent with the law,” Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“And as I said, so far we have a little indication from the Supreme Court as to what this means. But we don’t have a complete indication. And where there is room under the law for the president’s policies to be pursued, then I think the president is entitled to pursue them.”
Garland, who is expected to be confirmed, was responding to a question from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on whether it would be possible to ban certain types of guns.
On banning guns, Garland said, “where there is room under the law for the president’s policies to be pursued, then I think the president is entitled to pursue them.”
Biden last week called on Congress to “requir[e] background checks on all gun sales, [ban] assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and eliminat[e] immunity for gun manufacturers who knowingly put weapons of war on our streets.”
The definition of “assault weapon” is contested, but many Democrats consider the term to include AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles, which are popular among gun-rights advocates including for self-defense but also are a gun of choice for mass-shootings. There are an estimated 10-to-20 million legally owned AR-15s and similar weapons in the US.
Garland is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate with many Republican votes. He was nominated in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, but Republicans who controlled the Senate declined to hold confirmation hearings.
As a federal appeals judge, Garland in 2007 voted in favor of the full DC Circuit re-hearing a ruling in favor of gun rights. The case, ultimately known as District of Columbia v. Heller, was not reheard by the appeals court and the Supreme Court in 2008 ruled in the case that the Second Amendment provides for an individual right to own guns.
Garland defended his vote, saying it was not about the merits of the case, but rather about the need for further analysis.
“The panel decision was the first time I think ever that a court of appeals had held the individual right to keep and bear arms, which you are exactly right, the Supreme Court did uphold in the end. Every court of appeals had decided to the contrary, and the issue was plainly one that would require looking at a deep historical record as to the meaning of the Second Amendment and the way that had been applied,” Garland told Lee.
“I thought this was an extremely important issue, important enough since it was the very first time that we should hear it en banc. I was not the only judge, and other judges including a judge appointed by the by a president of a different party also voted and for the same reason.”
Garland said he wasn’t sure if the Constitution allows people to carry loaded guns in public and said he hadn’t studied the issue of whether legal immunity for gunmakers should be retained.