Biden rehearses for 2016, pushes ‘gun safety,’ not ‘gun control’

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Vice President Joe Biden tried to reassure gun-rights advocates that he is not going after their guns, during what may have been the first roundtable of his emerging 2016 presidential campaign.

The government will not be grabbing people’s “assault weapons,” Biden said in the online “fireside hangout” held Thursday at the White House.

“Realistically, that’s not going to happen,” he said, although he also said he supports a ban on “assault weapons,” which are guns that look like military guns.

Throughout the Google roundtable — which also included a PBS moderator and questioners from around the country — Biden presented himself as a moderate who is eager to support gun owners, cops worried about criminals and moms worried about their kids’ safety in schools and neighborhoods.

He also touted increased spending on mental-health services provided by school counselors and psychiatrists.

That’s a low-risk pitch that can help Biden win the Democrats’ primary ballots in early 2016, and the suburban swing-vote in the November general election.

Biden and President Barack Obama launched their gun campaign after the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 kids at a Connecticut school.

But they have shifted the initial focus away from an emphasis on gun control, following a pushback from vulnerable Democratic politicians in states where people value their guns for safety. They are now aiming their criticism at the National Rifle Association, seeking a variety of limited curbs and portraying GOP legislators as reckless supporters of the gun lobby.

However gun-rights advocates say Democrats will use even modest controls as a foundation to push for more controls — including taxes, lawsuits, regulations and laws — that will gradually make it difficult for Americans to own useful guns.

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.

Ownership of guns for hunting and self-defense is a constitutional right, and is “non-negotiable,” he claimed.

But “there should be rational limits on the type of weapons that [are] beyond the the level of protection I need for self-protection,” he said.

People are better off using shotguns for self-protection, he said. “If you want to keep people away in an earthquake, buy some shotgun shells,” he told a California questioner.

But a lot of the violence will not be stopped by gun-control regulations, he acknowledged. Much violence “is a consequence of gang-bangers, the drug trade, stolen weapons [or] weapons that are in the black market,” Biden admitted.

Curbs on “assault weapons” are needed to protect cops from criminals, he said. The proliferation of such weapons “does negatively impact on the health and well-being of police officers,” he said.

Biden also said he favors laws barring large magazines, and checking the background of gun-buyers, in case they have criminal records.

Background checks are already conducted during the vast majority of commercial gun sales.

Biden also insisted the administration is “attempting to fully enforce the current criminal laws.”

But in a January meeting, Jim Baker, the NRA advocate, quizzed Biden about the lack of enforcement of laws penalizing would-be gun buyers who provide false information during mandatory background checks.

Biden responded, said Baker, by saying “we simply don’t have the time or manpower to prosecute everybody who lies on a form, that checks a wrong box, that answers a question inaccurately.”

In 2010, prosecutors pursued only 44 cases of falsification, even though 72,600 applicants were denied, according to a 2012 report to the Department of Justice by the Regional Justice Information Service.

During the Jan. 24 online event, Biden claimed the prevention of crime is the administration’s highest priority and touted the role played by mental-health professionals.

The administration is asking Congress to appropriate several tens of millions of dollars to fund more school psychiatrists and psychologists, he said. These experts, he said, can identify kids who may become dangerous.

The administration wants Congress to provide enough money for 1,000 mental-health workers or “School Resource Officers,” who can carry guns in schools, he said.

However, he reassured one questioner — a school psychiatrist — that “we’re not calling for armed guards in school.”

“We think it would be a terrible mistake … [and] we think the last thing we need to be doing is arming teachers and administrators,” Biden claimed.

Polls show high public support for armed guards in schools.

Throughout the Jan. 24 event, Biden presented himself as a reasonable compromiser, eager to find common ground with rival parties.

“Both left and right sometimes take absolutist positions, but the vast majority of the American people agree on basic, basic principles relating to public safety and gun safety,” he said, adding “I met with the NRA, by the way.”

Overall, “I don’t view it as gun control, but as gun safety,” Biden declared.

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