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News brief: Biden's gun speech, Uvalde shooting probe, May unemployment

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden is pleading with Congress to take action on gun control.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The president talked last night during a rare evening address. Deadly shootings have become so prevalent in this country that shortly after the speech there was another one, this time at a church parking lot in Ames, Iowa. A man shot and killed two women before appearing to turn the gun on himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's time to act for the children we've lost, for the children we can save, for the nation we love. Let's hear the call and the cry. Let's meet the moment. Let us finally do something.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Scott Detrow was in the East Room of the White House during the president's speech. Scott, so what exactly does the president want Congress to do?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Well, you may recall that his immediate speech the night of the Uvalde shootings was criticized by some because there weren't specifics about what he wanted Congress to do next. There were plenty of specifics last night, many of which we have heard before from Biden and other Democrats. Biden urged Congress to pass a new assault weapons ban like the one that he was a key part of passing in the 1990s. He said if that's not possible, then raise the legal age limit for buying assault weapons to 21. He also called for national red-flag laws, broader background checks, among other things. One interesting thing that the president kept doing throughout the speech was talk specifically about how some of these laws could have stopped one high-profile shooting after another.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BIDEN: Fort Hood, Texas, 2009 - 13 dead and more than 30 injured. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., 2018 - 17 dead, 17 injured. In both places, countless others suffering with invisible wounds. Red-flag laws could have stopped both these shooters.

DETROW: But then, you know, Biden also returned to the current political reality toward the end of the speech and conceded many of these items are just nonstarters in the even Senate, where 10 Republicans are needed to move legislation forward.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, negotiations are going on between senators right now. So how does what he want fit in or not fit in with that?

DETROW: Yeah, those negotiations are much more narrow. Democrats like Connecticut's Chris Murphy are being clear that it's going to be pretty limited, if anything. But they view it as worth doing something. Talks are focused on things like safe storage of firearms, addressing mental health and school safety. Red-flag laws are part of those talks right now, but it's more about incentivizing state-level laws rather than a big federal law. And it's important to remember that these talks are all still relatively early and broad and tentative right now.

MARTINEZ: All right. So if that's the reality in Congress, though, and the negotiations on this are fragile, why come out and put himself front and center like this?

DETROW: Yeah, that was a question we spent a lot of time asking yesterday. White House officials said that this was about the president being in the conversation and trying to sway the public. There was that common theme of enough and also the message that Biden heard this weekend when he was in Uvalde, chants and cries to, quote, "do something."

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BIDEN: After Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Charleston, after Orlando, after Las Vegas, after Parkland, nothing has been done. This time, that can't be true.

DETROW: It was an emotional speech. At times, Biden explicitly and graphically talked about what kids in these shootings have seen, have done. But then again, there was that pivot to the current political reality that a lot of these bills can't pass. Biden said it was, quote, "unconscionable" that so many Republicans are opposed to these measures, especially because so many polls show these proposals are popular across party lines. He said he hopes voters think about that when they vote in the fall. But, you know, really, that is a hard sell when your party does control the House and Senate and the White House and especially amid so many other Democratic priorities that are also equally stalled.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Scott Detrow, thanks a lot.

DETROW: Sure thing.

MARTINEZ: The president's call to toughen gun laws comes on the heels of last week's mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where people want answers and also want accountability.

MARTIN: An employee at the school where the killings took place is now looking to sue the manufacturer of the gun that was used.

DON FLANARY: It was the person who used the gun, who, you know, gave him the gun, the people that made the gun. That's what's ultimately the people that are responsible.

MARTIN: That's the woman's attorney, Don Flanary, speaking there.

MARTINEZ: With us now is NPR's Laura Benshoff in Uvalde. Laura, how are folks in Uvalde reacting to President Biden's speech?

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: A lot of people here support the measures Biden is calling for. Reporter Laurel Wamsley spoke with people in bars and in the town square after he spoke last night. And many said that they agreed it's too easy to access the most lethal firearms right now. Hector Gonzales is the president of Southwest Texas Junior College, and he says he supports changes like raising the legal age to buy an assault rifle to 21.

HECTOR GONZALES: I am a hunter. And I own guns, and I have several pistols and rifles. But, you know, there is no hunting purpose for a high-capacity magazine. Bullets, projectiles that tumble when they impact tissue - you know, those are made to kill and destroy.

BENSHOFF: He says minds are changing even among some of the most ardent gun supporters he knows here. Another person NPR spoke with said the age limit should go even higher, like 26 years old.

MARTINEZ: Now, at least one person in Uvalde is taking matters into her own hands. Yesterday, some legal paperwork was filed against the manufacturer of the gun used by the shooter. What can you tell us about that?

BENSHOFF: Yeah, in Texas, you can actually start gathering evidence before you file a lawsuit if a judge allows it. And what was filed was called a petition for presuit deposition. Amy Marin, a special ed staffer at the school when the shooting happened, is the person named in the suit. And it aims to gather information from the gun-maker, Daniel Defense, about how they advertised their AR-15-style rifles. Depending on what they find, the company may be liable for marketing them in a way that's appealing to young people or those who want to commit crimes. The shooter in Uvalde was 18, and he did buy his gun legally. Now, gun-makers are generally shielded from lawsuits if their products are used to commit crimes under a 2005 federal law. But families from Sandy Hook had success with this type of suit earlier this year, just getting around that shield. And now others want to try it.

MARTINEZ: The story of what happened that day has taken a lot of twists and turns. Any clarity on that?

BENSHOFF: Information just drips out in bits and pieces. A state senator for the region, Roland Gutierrez, held a press conference on Thursday, taking local law enforcement to task for mishandling communication about the incident.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ROLAND GUTIERREZ: We've gotten some answers. And we've gotten some bad answers. We've gotten information that, the next day, turns to be different. We've gotten got pointed at teachers. We've seen that that teacher's now been vindicated.

BENSHOFF: Gutierrez said he expects the Texas Department of Public Safety to share more details today, which he hopes will include things like who was inside the school during the hour before the gunman was approached. And he also shared yesterday that 911 calls placed from inside the school were not being routed to the police force that was in charge of the response but a different force. That was new information. And, of course, everyone here hopes that that will all be finally settled when a final investigation report is released sometime in the future.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Laura Benshoff, thanks a lot.

BENSHOFF: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: Whether you're searching for a summer job or a whole new career, it's actually a really great time to be looking for work.

MARTIN: Indeed. Employers are desperate for workers to wait tables, staff assembly lines and keep watch over people at swimming pools. We're going to find out later this morning how many new jobs U.S. employers added last month.

MARTINEZ: With us now is NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, what do forecasters expect from this jobs report?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's expected to show a little bit of a slowdown in hiring not because there's any less need for workers but just because there aren't that many more workers available. Unemployment was already low in April at 3.6%. It might have fallen to 3.5% in May. That's a level we haven't seen since before the pandemic. I talked to Matt Eckert. He runs an amusement park and waterpark in Santa Claus, Ind. The parks usually hire about 2,200 workers during the summer. So far, they're about 30% shy of that. Eckert told me he's not panicking yet, but he is eager to get those numbers up before the peak of the summer season.

MATT ECKERT: Our full-time staff jumps in and helps when need be. I've ran my share of rides. I've made my share of pizzas. I've powdered my share of funnel cakes. And we do whatever we got to do to make sure that we get the job done.

HORSLEY: Eckert's big challenge this year has been finding lifeguards and waterslide attendants, so the park's offering a thousand-dollar bonus for those posts. There's actually a nationwide shortage of lifeguards, and that could keep some swimming pools closed during the hot summer months.

MARTINEZ: I'm still thinking about living in Santa Claus, Ind. What else are employers doing to fill this gap?

HORSLEY: Well, Eckert's theme park provides transportation to workers. They bus people in from up to an hour away. Now that school's out in Indiana, he's hoping more students and teachers will be looking for summer jobs. You know, for teenagers, this could be one of the best summer job markets in over a decade. At the other end of the age scale, some employers are hoping to lure older workers out of retirement. Tim Fiore surveys factory managers every month for the Institute for Supply Management. He says factories had somewhat more success filling jobs in May than they did in April, but they're still facing a lot of employee turnover.

TIM FIORE: There is some improvement, but, you know, there's a long way to go. And I think on the employment side here, it's going to be a slow slog because there just isn't that much labor out there.

HORSLEY: Employers are having to work harder to attract scarce workers. Some are offering more flexible schedules or better benefits. And, of course, wages have been going up. Average wages in April were up 5 1/2% from a year earlier.

MARTINEZ: All right. So that's good news - wages going up. But will it be a moot point if prices also go up?

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. Prices have been rising faster than wages. And that's part of what concerns the inflation watchdogs at the Federal Reserve. The Fed has begun raising interest rates, an effort to tamp down demand and get control over prices. But the central bank's also keeping a close eye on the labor market. You know, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers said during an online interview with The Washington Post this week it's going to be hard to curb inflation if wages keep climbing at a rapid rate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY SUMMERS: I don't think there's a durable reduction in inflation without a meaningful reduction in wage growth. And right now, with the labor market so tight, I don't see such a meaningful reduction in wage growth taking place.

HORSLEY: Summers thinks it's going to take a downturn in the job market for wages to level off, and that's why he's skeptical the Fed can bring down inflation without triggering a recession.

MARTINEZ: And, Scott, it sounds like a real political challenge for the Biden administration.

HORSLEY: Yeah, it really is. You know, the administration has a great jobs story to tell - well over 8 million jobs added since President Biden came into office. And the U.S. has now replaced about 95% of the jobs that were lost during the pandemic. Yet that is being overshadowed by these steep price hikes.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks a lot.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWUM AND DELAYDE'S "MOTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.