The White House is still pushing for an assault weapons ban, Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday, even though Senate Democrats all but sealed its fate by dropping it from the gun-control package they plan to consider next month.
Although the ban's sponsor still plans to offer it as an amendment, it is almost certain to fall victim to opposition from Republicans and likely some Democrats, too. In jettisoning the ban Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it fell far short of the amount of support it would need to survive a vote and said including the assault weapons ban could sink the whole bill.
"Attitudes are changing," Biden said in an interview with NPR News. "The president and I are going to continue to push, and we haven't given up on it."
Biden and President Barack Obama have walked a fine line on the assault weapons ban, widely considered the most politically challenging element of the gun-control proposals the administration is pushing. While fully embracing the ban as a matter of policy, the administration has avoided describing it as a must-have, wary of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Instead, they've argued that at the very least the ban deserves a vote, even if political considerations ultimately place its passage out of reach.
Gun-control advocates have insisted on the ban after an assault-type weapon was used in the massacre of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn., in December, galvanizing a national discussion about efforts to curb gun violence. Soon after the shooting, Obama tapped Biden to spearhead an effort to reduce gun deaths. The legislative proposal Biden developed includes the assault weapons ban, universal federal background checks and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
But staunch opposition from the National Rifle Association and other groups has underscored the political risks for lawmakers who support the measures, and Democrats are eager to pass whatever they can before Americans lose interest in the issue and the window to act closes.
It was that sentiment that led Reid, D-Nev., to drop the ban from the bill the Senate plans to debate in April. But Biden insisted that the ban's failure is not a foregone conclusion. He pointed to the original, 10-year assault weapons ban that Congress passed in 1994, noting that it too had been written off long before it eventually was adopted.
"I don't see this as there's an automatic endpoint, that, OK, there's one vote, this is it, fails, now we move on," Biden said. "We are going to continue to push for logical gun-safety regulations."
Still, Biden acknowledged that if Congress expanded background checks but failed to adopt the assault weapons ban, the White House would not consider the broader effort a failure.
"That would be gigantic," Biden said.
The fate of expanded background checks is also uncertain, with the NRA arguing that they could open the door to a national gun registry. Biden said the notion of registering guns crosses a cultural line, noting that unlike cars, which must be registered, guns are explicitly protected by the Constitution.
"When you go to registration, it raises all the 'black helicopter' crowd notion that what this is all about is identifying who has a gun," Biden said, using a term referring to conspiracy theorists, "so that one day the government can get up and go to the house and arrest everyone who has a gun, and they'll cite Nazi Germany and all that."
In the Republican-run House, GOP leaders have said they'll wait for the Senate to act before considering legislation. But they've not expressed support for an assault weapons ban and have shown little enthusiasm for most of Obama's proposals.
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