Biden gun proposals likely to spark fight in U.S. Congress

WASHINGTON Sat Jan 12, 2013 7:20am IST

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) arrives to meet with representatives from the video game industry, in a dialogue about gun violence, in his office in Washington, January 11, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) arrives to meet with representatives from the video game industry, in a dialogue about gun violence, in his office in Washington, January 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden wrapped up a series of White House meetings on Friday and prepared recommendations to curb U.S. gun violence that will call for expanded background checks on gun buyers and set up a heated, likely uphill battle in Congress to revive a ban on military-style assault weapons.

Biden, who heads a task force due to give President Barack Obama recommendations next week, met with representatives of the video game industry, whose products often enable players to carry out shootings in graphically violent games.

The vice president has said he will recommend "universal" background checks for all gun buyers - endorsed as a top priority on Friday by the prominent gun-control group the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence - and new limits on the capacity of ammunition magazines.

Obama formed the Biden task force following last month's massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in which a gunman shot dead 20 children and six adults at an elementary school.

The White House reiterated on Friday that it also will try to revive the U.S. ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004 after being in effect for a decade. The Obama administration rejected suggestions it was trying to lower expectations for getting a broad ban on assault weapons approved by Congress.

"The president has been clear that Congress should reinstate the assault weapons ban and that avoiding this issue just because it's been politically difficult in the past is not an option," White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said.

Biden's recommendations are likely to put the White House on a collision course with the influential National Rifle Association gun rights lobbying group and spark the biggest gun-control fight in Congress in nearly a decade. The NRA criticized the White House effort after meeting with Biden on Thursday.

Any gun control proposals face a difficult fight in Congress, both in the Republican-led House of Representatives and in the Democratic-led Senate, where many Democrats represent conservative states with broad public support for gun rights.

Gun control advocates have renewed hope that a package of gun restrictions could clear Congress, while acknowledging the assault weapons ban likely will face the toughest path.

"Among the things that are under consideration, banning assault weapons is probably the hardest lift for Congress. Bans are always the toughest fight," said Jim Kessler, senior vice president of policy at the centrist think tank Third Way.

NRA President David Keene predicted that any proposal to ban assault weapons would not survive in Congress. He said his group has a "profound disagreement" with Obama on the right approach to preventing incidents such as the one in Newtown. The NRA has proposed putting armed security guards in U.S. schools.

'NO BAN ON ASSAULT WEAPONS'

"I do not think that there's going to be a ban on so-called assault weapons in Congress," Keene said on NBC's "Today" show, adding that many of Biden's likely recommendations would be "basically feel-good proposals."

Keene said the political muscle and financial clout of the NRA, which says it has 4 million members and spends heavily on political races, was not the stumbling block for the effort to restrict guns.

"It's not the power of the NRA," Keene said. "It is the strength of belief among millions of Americans in their right under the Constitution to privately own firearms."

A Senate Democratic aide said it is too early to predict the prospects for an assault weapons ban. Obama promised to put gun control at the top of his agenda for his second term, but it will compete with a crush of other legislative priorities and a looming budget confrontation with Republicans.

Kessler, a former official for the gun-control advocacy group Americans for Gun Safety, said passage of a law expanding background checks would be a significant achievement on its own.

"There are going to be 11,000 funerals this year for people murdered by a gun, and almost none of them will be murdered by an assault weapon. They are going to die from a handgun," he said.

"If we can do something that requires background checks for all sales, including those at gun shows, that's a huge accomplishment. We shouldn't look at that as a policy-making around the edges. It will do more to reduce crime and protect people than an assault weapons ban," he said.

NO 'SILVER BULLET'

On Friday, Biden said there was no "silver bullet" for the complex problem of gun violence. One day after meeting with the movie industry, Biden met with representatives of the video game business, whose violent games played by millions of teenagers and adults have faced new criticism since the Newtown shootings.

He said he is looking at potential measures to curb violence online and in popular entertainment, and told the group he also is eyeing technology that would prevent people from firing guns that they had not bought themselves.

The Brady Campaign, in its recommendations to Biden's task force, listed the effort to close loopholes in the background check system for gun buyers as its top priority. Various loopholes allow two of every five gun sales to take place without checks, the group said.

Also included were proposals to improve the ability to identify dangerous people who represent the most risk, especially among the mentally ill, and give law enforcement better tools to crack down on gun trafficking.

Restricting the availability of military-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines also was included, but as the last of the priorities listed.

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, said the assault weapons ban was important but that "it's also where the conversation is naturally focusing, and I think we feel there should be a broader conversation that should very importantly include background checks."

Several states are considering laws designed to curb gun violence after the Connecticut massacre.

In Massachusetts, violent video games have been removed from state highway service plazas out of concern they would offend people, particularly from neighboring Connecticut.

In New Jersey, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo has introduced a bill that would require schools to install panic buttons that would connect to local police stations. They could be manually activated in case of a life-threatening situation or emergency.

The Butler Area School District near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania decided before the Newtown shootings to deploy armed security guards in schools and has accelerated the effort. The district got permission from a judge to allow retired police officers who monitor its 14 schools to carry firearms.

"We simply did what we though was best for our school district," Superintendent Mike Strutt said.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey in Washington, Mary Barr Mann in New Jersey, Daniel Lovering in Massachusetts and Drew Singer in Pennsylvania; Editing by David Lindsey and Will Dunham)

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