Mar 15, 2023 - Podcasts

President Biden's new action on guns

President Biden signed a gun control executive order on Tuesday with the main goal of strengthening background checks. But the move also highlights the limits of his power on this issue.

  • Plus, the EPA proposes new limits for cancer-causing chemicals in our drinking water.
  • And, a Russian jet collides with a U.S. drone over the Black Sea.

Guests: Axios' Dave Lawler, The Guardian's Abené Clayton, Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc's Sri Vedachalam.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Naomi Shavin, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Suguira. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Wednesday, the 15th of March.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: the EPA proposes new limits for cancer-causing chemicals in our drinking water. Also - a Russian jet collides with a U.S. drone over the Black Sea. But first, President Biden’s new action on guns – that’s today’s One Big Thing.

President Biden’s new action on gun

NIALA: President Biden yesterday signed an executive order on guns with the main goal of strengthening background checks. But his action also shows the limits of President Biden's power on this issue. Abené Clayton is based not far from where the president was yesterday. She's a reporter in LA with the Guardian's Guns and Lies in America Project, and she's back with a reality check for us on this executive order.

Hi, Abené. Welcome back to Axios Today.

ABENÉ CLAYTON: Hi. Thank you for having me.

NIALA: So the administration says this is as “close to universal background checks as possible” without additional legislation. What does this executive order actually do?

ABENÉ: Well, when it comes to background checks, it's seeking to clarify who counts as a gun seller. Well, clarify is a bit of a loose word. It's really trying to add more qualifications to who counts as a gun dealer and who needs to make sure that no one is a prohibited person before they sell a firearm.

I think the traditional understanding is like you're a, a gun store or an online retailer is someone who absolutely needs to, but from a background check. But for private sales, a lot of those guns, um, fall through the cracks and we don't know where they're being moved to. We don't know who's buying them, who the last person who had it was before it may have been stolen out of a car and used in a shooting. So I think the Biden administration is trying to close those gaps and get as many background checks done as possible.

NIALA: And how should we understand the limits of the executive office when it comes to making changes like this?

ABENÉ: Outside of background checks, a lot of what he has in the executive order relies on the ATF and frontline police officers to implement a lot. You know, he talked about expanding education around red flag laws, and that can only go as far as the people who are supposed to petition for them, right? So he can direct the DOJ and the ATF to clarify who counts as, um, a firearm seller and who counts as someone who needs to perform a background check. But right now, without legislation, it can only go so far. You can advise, you can add new qualifications, but it's really on Congress to make that official.

But a question that I hear when talk to victims' families when I talk to, you know, survivors of community violence, which is, where are all these guns coming from? So I think that's one thing that the executive office can do. It can require a level of transparency that we don't usually get when it comes to finding out exactly where “crime guns” are coming from. Are they coming from a single like problem retailer who's been cited multiple times, but is yet to be shut down? Are they being lost in transit? There's a provision there, you know, in the executive actions for the Department of Transportation to get involved, to figure out are guns being stolen off of trains while they're in transit. When it comes to transparency, that's something I think you can see results on a little more quickly, even if it's just informing agendas.

NIALA: So practically speaking, how much of a difference is this executive order going to make?

ABENÉ: When it comes to things like the ballistics and expanding the use of red flag laws. We're gonna have to see how counties and states respond. I'm not sure how much is gonna change this time. But I am more encouraged by the creation of federal protocols for how to support people after incidents of mass violence. I think we know that if mass shooting isn't covered highly in the media at the national level than those victims are less likely to get support, whether it's a GoFundMe or even just the attention and kind of the well wishes that we see come after a mass shooting. So I think that provision in particular has the most potential to have a quicker real world change, because it is less likely to be held up by politics.

NIALA:: Abené Clayton is an LA-based reporter with The Guardian. Thanks so much for being with us.

ABENÉ: Thank you for having me.

A Russian jet collides with a U.S. drone

NIALA: On Tuesday, a strange incident played out over the Black Sea when a Russian jet caused a U.S. drone to go down in international waters.

Just before colliding with the drone's propeller, the jet reportedly dumped fuel on the drone. It was called an "unsafe and unprofessional act" by Air Force General James B. Hecker. I asked Axios’ Dave Lawler for his take on all of this.

DAVE LAWLER: It's a reminder of the possibility of accidents, miscalculation, and escalation as the war in Ukraine drags on. Although in this case, there's likely to be no escalation beyond some stern words for the Russian ambassador who was summoned over the incident by the State Department. There had been intercepts over the Black Sea by Russian aircraft of U.S. aircraft in previous instances. What there hadn't been were collisions like this one. And so what's unknown at this time is whether the Russian pilot did this intentionally under orders or whether this was some sort of accident. One thing to watch, if this was intentional by Russia, is further efforts to make it more difficult for Ukraine's backers to provide it with intelligence and arms. So an unusual incident over the Black Sea and one we don't have all of the answers to yet.

NIALA: That's Axios’ Senior World Reporter, Dave Lawler.

In a moment, the EPA proposes limits on cancer-causing chemicals in our drinking water.


EPA proposes new limits for cancer-causing chemicals in our drinking water

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

MICHAEL S. REGAN: I'm so proud to announce that EPA is proposing the first ever national standard to protect communities from PFAS and drinking water.

NIALA: That's EPA administrator Michael Regan in Wilmington, North Carolina yesterday.

The EPA’'s proposal would limit some of a class of toxic chemicals called PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” that have been linked to serious illnesses like cancer. Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc’s Sri Vedachalam is here with the big picture. Hey, Sri. Welcome to Axios Today.

SRI VEDACHALAM: Hi. Thank you for having me.

NIALA: What do people need to know about PFAS chemicals?

SRI: PFAS, is a class of chemicals which are found in industrial compounds, firefighting foam. Basically these are industrial products that are coming, from outside, you know, our external environment into the water systems. And so the EPA has been kind of working on this issue for many, many years, as you said, we've, we've figured out there are health complications with these compounds.

We've seen the chemicals show up in the water systems across the country. I think this week there was a study that looked at toilet paper across the world and, and you saw them in every sample that they tested. So these are called forever chemicals, they don't break down. It takes a long time, but they're just found everywhere, you know, not just drinking water. They're in our food, they're in our soil, the air we breathe. It's essentially a part of our community now.

NIALA: So a bunch of states, including Michigan, have already imposed PFAS drinking water limits. How does a federal mandate of this affect communities across the country?

SRI: So some states, as you said, have limits, but majority of the states in the U.S. do not have. So these are new regulations that were not there before. EPA has had a health advisory in the past, which was simply, a guidance, not an actual requirement. And so now moving forward, if this gets implemented, this would be an actual regulation. Just like it has for lead and arsenic and some of the other compounds.

NIALA: How dangerous are they?

SRI: They've been linked to various types of cancers. A lot of health issues have been attributed to these chemicals. I should say, we have lots of contaminants in our drinking water. This is one of them.

NIALA: This is just a proposal. How feasible is it for water companies, for local governments to implement all of this? How much is this gonna cost?

SRI: This will not be cheap. This is an expensive proposition from the EPA. Now it's quite possible that if and when, then the rules are implemented with these exact numbers as they have prescribed, there will be many utilities across the country who will be found in violation. Now, so there will be a negotiation process of how long utilities get, to actually implement. Is there any funding that is made available by Congress to help utilities sort of bridge that gap and get to that end point where they have adequate technology? So this will be a long running process and I expect some pushback from the water sector in either relaxing the rules, buying more time, or simply getting more funding.

NIALA: What do you think the most important thing is that consumers need to know about the EPA action?

SRI: The most important thing is that this is a class of chemicals that are highly complex. So, we are likely to hear more about them over the many years. It's possible that as years go by, maybe EPA continues to bring down the regulatory limit over time, because these compounds are just everywhere and, you know, drinking water is one place to regulate potentially, eventually, maybe FDA gets in the business and, you know, it's, it's tested in food products and, you know, they start regulating that. Will continue to hear more about PFAS and other sorts of chemicals that are likely in our ecosystem.

NIALA: Sri Vedachalam is the Director of Water Equity and Climate Resilience at Environmental Consulting and Technology Inc. Thanks, Sri.

SRI: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

NIALA: That’s it for us today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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