When Democrats in 1994 passed an assault-weapons ban, then lost control of both the House and Senate months later, members of both parties said it was no coincidence. Almost two decades later, Vice President Joe Biden says the political calculus is different, and Democrats can safely back gun-control measures without fear of losing their jobs.
The world has changed, public opinion has evolved, and Democrats have new tools at their disposal, Biden told House Democrats assembled Wednesday for their annual retreat in Lansdowne, Va.
"I'm not asking you to vote for something you don't believe, but I don't want to hear about, "Well, we can't take it on because it's too politically dangerous,'" Biden said.
He admonished lawmakers for learning the wrong lesson in 1994: that some fights are too risky to take on. "It's the reason in part why it didn't get reauthorized" in 2004, Biden added.
President Barack Obama's proposals to reduce gun violence face an uncertain fate in Congress, and nowhere more so than in the House, where Democrats are in the minority. The White House was initially encouraged by the outpouring of support for gun-control measures that seemed to erupt following the schoolhouse massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., in December.
"The image of those beautiful young children, 6 and 7 years old, literally riddled — riddled — with bullet holes," Biden recalled, his voice heavy with emotion. "All of us, 54 days ago, watching those families and only imagining we could be in the same spot."
But that impetus may not be enough to overcome staunch opposition from gun-rights advocates, including the National Rifle Association, a powerful lobbying group that opposes most what Obama has proposed.
Shortly after the Connecticut tragedy, Obama tasked Biden with developing a series of measures to combat a scourge of mass shootings in the U.S. What emerged weeks later was a proposal to pass a new ban on assault weapons, require background checks for all gun sales and bar high-capacity magazines carrying more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
A proposal being unveiled Thursday by House Democrats that resembles Obama's plan will likely face difficult odds in the GOP-controlled House. Even in the Senate, where Democrats are in control, some Democratic senators have expressed a desire to avoid voting on an assault-weapons ban, the most politically tenuous part of the package.
Biden dismissed concerns about political reprisal as an illegitimate reason for Democrats who otherwise support Obama's measures to vote against them. In addition to changes in public opinion, Biden pointed to social media as another element working for Democrats. Whereas lawmakers who supported the 1994 ban were demagogued as trying to take everyone's guns away, now such accusations are easier to dispel, he said.
Biden pledged to travel extensively throughout the country to make the case for the administration's proposals — he and Obama have already started to make those trips — and said he'd make a point of visiting gun-friendly areas where opposition is likely to be strongest.
"You can go into areas where we're told you can't go and politically survive," Biden said. "I'm telling you times have changed."
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