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 semi-automatic rifle and declared, “This is my baby.”
Biden, then a Delaware senator, shook his head. “I tell you what, if that's his baby, he needs help,” he said. 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. For Biden, now the vice president, the moment offers a second chance as he drafts a legislative response for President Barack Obama that would reinstate his expired assault weapons ban, while also 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 past battles with the National Rifle Association to frame recommendations that Obama wants ready by next month.
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.
That 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; those with just one accessory were still legal.
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 semi-automatic rifles, more than 3 million AR-15 rifles are already in private hands, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who worked with Biden on the 1994 ban, plans to reintroduce the assault weapons bill with a more inclusive definition, banning even those with just “one or more military characteristics.” It identifies 120 guns by name whose manufacture and sale would be banned, and it would outlaw certain modifications used to bypass the last law.