Biden, once again, girds for fight over gun rules

Seeks to learn from mistakes on assault ban

Vice President Joe Biden, meeting with federal law enforcement leaders to discuss gun control measures, faces the challenge of developing a workable, politically palatable deal.
Vice President Joe Biden, meeting with federal law enforcement leaders to discuss gun control measures, faces the challenge of developing a workable, politically palatable deal.

WASHINGTON — Never much known for restraint, Joe Biden did not hold back during a presidential primary debate in 2007 when a voter asking about gun rights in a recorded video displayed a fearsome-looking semiautomatic rifle and declared, ‘‘This is my baby.’’

Biden, then a Delaware senator in a dark-horse bid for the White House, shook his head. ‘‘I tell you what, if that’s his baby, he needs help,’’ he said. ‘‘I think he just made an admission against self-interest. I don’t know if he’s mentally qualified to own that gun.’’

The candidate’s blunt, dismissive remark cheered one side of the United States’ long-polarized debate about guns and alienated the other. But it overlooked the salient reality that the rifle-toting voter was able to buy it legally even under a law that theoretically banned such weapons and was co-written by Biden.


Five years later, that same type of weapon, a Bushmaster AR-15, is at the heart of a renewed national conversation about gun laws because it was used this month by the mass killer in Newtown, Conn.

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For Biden, now the vice president, the moment offers a second chance as he drafts a legislative response for President Obama that would reinstate the expired assault weapons ban, while applying lessons from the last time around to make it more effective.

A president intent on pressing Congress to restrict access to high-powered guns could hardly find a more seasoned figure to take charge of the effort. Biden, who owns two shotguns, brings decades of experience and plenty of scar tissue from battles with the National Rifle Association to frame recommendations that Obama wants ready by the end of next month.

As far as the NRA is concerned, Biden is an ideologue whose mind is already made up about the ‘‘conversation’’ he is now supposed to lead.

‘‘This is somebody who’s bombastic and really does think that anybody who disagrees with him is not only wrong but crazy,’’ David Keene, the NRA president, said in an interview.


Biden, he added, has not reached out to his group and has shown contempt for gun owners who value their Second Amendment rights.

‘‘His debate response and how he’s acted as a legislator indicates that he not only doesn’t understand it but doesn’t have any desire to understand it,’’ Keene said. ‘‘Joe is not a nuance character.’’

Biden knows that gun control is not only a fiercely emotional topic for many Americans but also a tricky area for legislation. The assault weapons ban he helped pass in 1994 was written narrowly enough that it allowed plenty of guns to still be sold.

Moreover, a 10-year expiration clause was added as a compromise. Democrats went on to lose control of Congress that fall, a defeat that many attributed to the gun law, leaving the party skittish ever since.

This time, Biden wants to tighten the strictures, but to succeed he needs to get legislation through a Republican-controlled House. And even if he and Obama can persuade Congress to ban the sale of new semiautomatic rifles, more than 3 million AR-15 rifles are already in private hands, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.


First elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden had a long interest in passing crime bills, and gun control became part of his proposals. An assault weapon ban he wrote in the 1980s failed in Congress, but by 1994, as he put together a comprehensive crime package, a new Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein of California, wanted to try again. Biden was skeptical.

‘‘When I told Joe Biden, who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, that I was going to move this as an amendment on the crime bill, he laughed at me,’’ Feinstein recalled this month on NBC’s “Meet the Press.’’ ‘’He said, ‘You’re new here. Wait till you learn.’ ’’

In the end, it passed, in significant part because of Biden.

‘‘I think there were days the chairman didn’t sleep,’’ said Karen Robb, who worked for the committee at the time. ‘‘It never would have made it out of the Senate without his help, period.’’

To get it through required a compromise. The bill defined an assault weapon as a gun that was able to accept a detachable magazine and that included two or more other combat-type accessories, like a pistol grip, a flash suppressor, or a grenade launcher; those with just one accessory were still legal.

The upheaval brought about by the midterm election later that year soured Democrats on gun control. A Republican-led Congress let the assault weapons ban expire in 2004 amid debate about the effectiveness of the original legislation.

By the time Jered Townsend, the Bushmaster owner from Michigan, recorded his question for the 2007 primary debate, Biden was one of the few outspoken voices on gun control left among Democratic leaders.

Obama, running against him, offered a modulated position. He agreed with conservatives that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms — a view later upheld by the Supreme Court — but he supported gun control measures like a ban on assault rifles that he considered constitutional.