WASHINGTON -- With the Obama administration gearing up for its first attempt at reforming federal gun policy, Vice President Joe Biden’s office has begun assuming more of an active role.
Aides to the vice president were present at a 90-minute meeting that the Department of Justice hosted with gun control advocates on Tuesday, administration officials said. And while those officials stressed Biden’s involvement in the gun policy discussion was still very much in its beginning stages -- “at this point, we are just gathering ideas from people,” said an administration official, “and [the Vice President’s staff is] involved in that” -- those in attendance were pleased to see Biden emissaries at the table, interpreting it as a sign of seriousness on the administration’s behalf.
“We have had other meetings with folks at justice and meetings with other people in the administration,” said one attendee. “This was the most thorough engagement we have had to date.”
The vice president, after all, was the lawmaker most closely associated with the last major congressional effort to refigure Second Amendment rights. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was written, in large part, by then-senator Biden. It included major curbs on assault weapons, not only barring the manufacturing of 19 different brands of firearms, but also outlawing the possession of newly manufactured high-capacity magazines.
The law expired in 2004, and despite several high-profile gun-related incidents since then, efforts at re-introduction have failed.
The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 19 others in Tucson in January was, for gun control advocates, the hook to try again.
“Tucson truly has a potential to be a game changer in this discussion for a number of reasons,” explained Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “There is a high profile target who lived. There will continue to be Gabrielle Giffords stories… [The shooter Jared] Loughner survived too. In the Virginia Tech shootings, no one was high profile there… with most shootings nobody knows who any of the people were. You almost have to go back to Jim Brady and Reagan.”
Over the past week, Helmke’s group and several others were in contact with the Department of Justice about what type of policy response, whether through congressional or executive action, could be taken. Tuesday’s meeting was the first formal sit-down, to be followed with similar meetings with both law-enforcement officials and second-amendment rights groups.
While the purpose of the early talks is to explore all possible ideas, several officials involved said that it is already fairly clear the scope of the policy options is limited. Tuesday's meeting, which included officials from the White House and the Department of Justice in addition to the VP’s office, involved open discussion on a host of topics.
But the session mainly focused on the set of reforms Obama outlined in his op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star on Sunday, including proper implementation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS); greater state-to-state coordination; and a “faster and nimbler” system so that those conducting background checks have the best available data.
Most widely discussed was how states could be better supported or encouraged to quickly and comprehensively upload data on criminal records and the mentally ill to the NICS system. That, however, is considered low-hanging fruit in the gun control advocacy community. Going after straw buyers and private sellers is a much harder lift, though one that was discussed on Tuesday. Participants mentioned high-capacity magazines too, but tellingly it was the attendees, not the administration, which originated the discussion.
“It struck me that they were looking for a broad range of ideas,” said Helmke. “That they hadn’t decided on any proposals or written anything off.”