The high-stakes debate over guns’ role in society has created a small crack in the united front presented by Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama — and that crack may widen because the politicians face very different political incentives during the next few years.
The crack was made clear Jan. 27 by Obama, who portrayed widespread opposition to his push for gun curbs as as a provincial cultural quirk devoid of any political purpose, or of any relevance for suburban districts like Newtown, Conn., where a well-armed psychopath murdered 20 children and six adults on Dec.14.
“Part of being able to move this forward is understanding the reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas,” he claimed in an interview with The New Republic magazine published Sunday but conducted on Jan. 16.
“If you grew up [in a rural area] and your dad gave you a hunting rifle when you were ten, and you went out and spent the day with him and your uncles, and that became part of your family’s traditions, you can see why you’d be pretty protective of that,” Obama said, shortly after making a cursory claim that “we respect the rights of responsible gun owners.”
Biden, however, frequently offers a broader understanding of guns’ diverse role in American society than Obama’s narrow depiction of firearms as a cultural oddity.
As a progressive, Obama says people can best prosper when they look to the federal government for protection and support.
In sharp contrast, many Americans regard guns as as vital part of their longstanding emphasis on self-reliance, on families, on local communities and on non-government groups such as churches, charities and advocacy groups. Biden’s comments show he recognizes this argument.
During an online chat Jan. 24, for example, Biden described how a grandmother showed him how she used a gun for self-protection and said owning guns for self-defense is a “non-negotiable” constitutional right.
Relying on guns for safety “is a legitimate and respectable tradition and I think it should be honored and it is not the problem,” Biden said.
He said the White House’s calls for new gun restrictions would only apply to weapons with features that aren’t needed for self-defense — such as so-called “assault weapons” and large-capacity magazines.
“A shotgun will keep you a lot safer — a double-barreled shotgun — than an ‘assault weapon’ in somebody’s hand who doesn’t know how to use it, even one who does know how to use it,” said Biden, who grew up in Pennsylvania and Delaware. “You know, it’s harder to use an assault weapon to hit something than it is a shotgun.”
“Assault weapons” is a term used by gun-control advocates to stigmatize semiautomatic guns that look like soldiers’ rifles. Technically, the term describes soldiers’ battlefield rifles that can operate as semiautomatics rifles or as fully automatic machine guns. Under existing law, assault weapons are deemed machine guns and their possession is sharply restricted.