WASHINGTON – Requiring all gun buyers to pass a federal background check could be a key part of a White House plan to combat mass shootings, Vice President Joe Biden indicated, as he prepared to present recommendations to the president on Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Biden said he had found a “surprising recurrence of suggestions” for “universal background checks” in meetings with interest groups. Background checks are not currently required in private sales by unlicensed dealers, including transactions conducted at gun shows.
Biden is expected to propose measures that President Barack Obama could institute by executive action, as well as proposed laws, such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
The quick movement to roll out potential remedies to mitigate gun violence – ahead of schedule and just days before Obama and Biden are sworn in to a second term – is a signal of the urgency the White House aims to project in developing a response to the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting, which led to the deaths of 20 young students and six staff members.
“The public wants us to act,” Biden said.
But the National Rifle Association, which sent a representative to Biden’s meeting Thursday with gun organizations, issued a chilly statement, an indication of the challenge ahead.
“It is unfortunate that this administration continues to insist on pushing failed solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems,” the NRA statement said. “We will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of Congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works – and what does not.”
The White House was circumspect, noting only that the meeting lasted more than an hour and a half and providing a photo of a table surrounded by stony faces.
Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, said, while there were some tense moments, “it was a conversation, not a lecture.”
Feldman, a former NRA official whose group is more open to tighter gun laws, said he told administration officials, “If we focus on the gun, we miss the opportunity to zero in on the problem that unifies us, which is in whose hands are the guns.”
Since being tapped by Obama to head up the White House response, Biden and other administration officials have met with an array of groups, including mental health professionals, law enforcement and clergy. On Thursday, Biden also met with hunters, conservationists and entertainment industry officials. He plans to meet today with representatives from the video game industry.
Biden told reporters he expected to present his recommendations to Obama on Tuesday, well ahead of his end-of-the-month deadline. The White House had indicated that the president would then quickly “announce a concrete package of proposals he intends to push without delay.”
“I’m not sure we can guarantee this will never happen again, but as the president said, even if we can only save one life, it would make sense,” Biden said. “And I think we can do a great deal without in any way imposing on and impinging on the rights of the Second Amendment.”
Another recommendation, Biden said, could be to gather information on “what kind of weapons are used most to kill people” and “what kind of weapons are trafficked weapons.” Since the mid-1990s, Congress has restricted research into gun violence by federal agencies.
Earlier this week, Biden indicated that his recommendations could include actions Obama can take without congressional approval. “We’re not going to get caught up in the notion that, unless we can do everything, we’re going to do nothing,” he said.
Biden’s comments reflect the political reality in Congress. The House is controlled by Republicans who have been resistant to new gun restrictions. In the Senate, Democrats are shy of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, and some of them face difficult re-elections in 2014, when pro-gun groups could try to defeat them.
Actions are also possible at the state level.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is hoping his state will set the tone for new federal gun laws, and he vowed Wednesday to “enact the toughest assault weapon ban in the nation, period.”
“We must stop the madness, my friends,” said Cuomo, insisting that his proposal was not aimed at hunters and sportsmen. “I own a Remington shotgun. I’ve hunted. I’ve shot. That’s not what this is about. It is about ending the unnecessary risk of high-capacity assault rifles.”
Cuomo wants New York to ban online ammunition sales and ban high-capacity magazines; require background checks even on private weapons sales; and stiffen penalties for illegal weapons possession. He also called for laws to keep weapons away from the mentally ill.