03/05/2013 07:35 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Joe Biden's Perspective On Gun Violence Traces Back To His Days As A Lifeguard

WASHINGTON –- Before he spent more than 30 years in the Senate and way before he rose to the ranks of vice president, Joe Biden had a far less glamorous job. He was a lifeguard.

It was the summer of 1962. The civil rights movement was gaining steam, racial animus was rising in cities, and freedom rides and sit-ins were regular features on the nightly news. As a 19-year-old college student working at an inner-city pool in Wilmington, Del., Biden stood out.

"I remember it well, the fact that he had the job at the pool," recalled David Walsh, Biden's friend and one-time law partner. "He was certainly the only white person around, that's for sure."

Spending his days at a pool where some swimmers had never conversed with a white person before, Biden had an educational experience that others lacked. In his autobiography, "Promises to Keep," the lifeguarding gig plays a surprisingly prominent role. Prices Run Swimming Pool, he wrote, did more to mold his views of race, society and the triggers of unrest than did all the press coverage he consumed from newspapers and television. It taught him one of the "most valuable lessons about what divided people -- and what unites them."

As he transitioned from lifeguard to lawyer and, ultimately, to lawmaker, those lessons stayed with him. They shaped his approach to a number of legislative topics, including crime and gun control. Former aides recalled how Biden dug in his heels on a provision in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the anti-crime bill passed in 1994, that kept recreational basketball courts open until midnight. He believed from his days as a lifeguard that providing youths with an alternative social outlet would help prevent violence.

"That's just one example of how Biden has sort of always lived middle-class issues," said Chris Putala, a longtime former aide. "That's his frame, that's his reference. That's just him."

Now, as Biden helps spearhead the Obama administration's current push on gun policy reform, former associates and longtime Biden-watchers see him leaning on those life experiences, frames and references yet again.

* * * * *

As a clerk at a Wilmington law firm in 1968, Biden began hearing complaints from black residents that Gov. Charles Terry (D) had ordered the National Guard to patrol black neighborhoods, long after the riots sparked by Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination had ended. He understood their anger. National Guardsmen weren't walking the streets of nearby white neighborhoods with loaded guns and imposing dusk-to-dawn curfews.

"The nightly news had a way of making these stories seem like a conversation between the races in Wilmington, but I knew blacks and whites weren't talking to one another," Biden said in "A Life of Trial & Redemption," a biography of him written by Jules Witcover. "I knew that from my experience at [the] swimming pool."

Biden, feeling powerless to address the social strife he saw around him, quit his job at the law firm to become a public defender. He did so in dramatic fashion, marching across the square outside his office and into the public defender's office in the basement of a three-story building.

The job proved to be temporary, and Biden picked up some part-time work as a public defender at another firm. But his eye was already on elected office. He was first elected to the New Castle County Council and then, at the age of 29, the U.S. Senate. Through it all, the sense that government had a role to play in reducing crime and violence and tempering social unrest remained a driving force.

"He has always been a hawk on crime, especially street crime," said John Daniello, the Delaware Democratic Party Chair and longtime Biden confidant. "His first political run was for county council, which has its own suburban county police force, and he did much to expand that police force. So he always understood, I think, the need to protect the citizens."

During his Senate bid, Biden latched on to statistics that showed an increase in crime during the first six months of 1970. He accused local Republican leaders of falling down on the issue and national Republican leaders of showing insensitivity towards it.

Once in office, however, it became more challenging to embrace an agenda that was tough on crime. The party was split on the issue, recalled former Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) a longtime Biden friend and top aide who was appointed to replace him in the Senate. Southern Democrats were skeptical of federal overreach. Northern Democrats had concerns about social justice.

"Crime bills were tough to pass," said Kaufman. "But Biden came to the Senate ready to bring people together on the issue, and during his career, he had organized unexpected coalitions to do just that."

* * * * *

One of those coalitions came together in 1984, for passage of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. Biden served as the Democratic floor manager for the legislation, which, among other provisions, established tougher sentencing standards for felons who used firearms and stronger penalties for the possession and transfer of marijuana. Biden's defenders argue that he added civil liberty protections to the law. But two years later, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he rankled those same voices by pushing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Biden, his critics charged, was trying too hard to beat tough-on-crime Republicans at their own game.

The legislative battle over the 1994 crime bill was even more contentious. The bill was more ambitious than the 1984 version and its passage required a defter political touch. Putala, Biden's aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1989 to 1998, recalled that the senator became a political juggler of sorts, "listening to opposing points and figuring out substantively how to accommodate them."

Expanding the list of crimes punishable by the death penalty, increasing funding for state and local police and toughening certain law enforcement measures were all adjustments Biden made in order to build a coalition for passage. But when pro-gun rights lawmakers pressured him to strip the bill of its Assault Weapons Ban, which outlawed the production of certain military-style weapons, Biden resisted. He agreed to carve back language over which guns were included in the ban -- a move gun control advocates argue limited its effectiveness -- but demanded that its core remain intact.

Other provisions threatened to trip the bill up, including the "midnight basketball" program that Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) dubbed the "midnight basketball for robbers and rapists" program. The Clinton White House, Putala recounted, suggested that lawmakers simply remove it to move the bill forward. But Biden didn't budge. He felt strongly, from his time as a lifeguard and his work "in community rec leagues in downtown Wilmington," that the program was a useful crime deterrent, Putala said.

"That could have very well been a catalyst," Walsh, Biden's longtime friend, said of the notion that the senator's experience as a lifeguard influenced his approach.

A spokeswoman for Biden referred questions about Biden's past experiences to Kaufman.

Biden's push for another major component of the 1994 crime bill, the Violence Against Women Act, also seemed to stem from personal experience. The groundbreaking law, which he shepherded through the Senate, provided funding for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. In his autobiography, he recalled how his wife, Jill, helped him understand the depth of the issue, relaying reports of a rapist on the campus of West Chester University, where she was taking night classes.

The two got into an argument one night after he urged her to park in a well-lit area where she risked getting a parking ticket -- a suggestion she resented because it implied that women had to make accommodations that men did not.

Biden described the conversation as enlightening. So too were data patterns revealing that violent crimes perpetrated against men had decreased during the 1980s while those against young women had gone up.

But Senate norms were tough to change. During a private Judiciary Committee debate on the marital rape component of the legislation, a colleague, Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), offered a peculiar objection.

"Damn it, when you get married, you kind of expect you're going to get a little sex," Denton said, as Biden tells it in his autobiography.

Eventually, Biden persevered. And it wasn't the stats or backroom dealing that did the trick. It was his portrayal of the legislation as a family values issue that colleagues said completed the sell.

“He would routinely remind people that it's not just about women. It's about our daughters and our mothers and our sisters and aunts,” said former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who served in the Senate with Biden for a decade. “He brings it back really to what's most important: not just his family, but everybody else's.”

* * * * *

It’s been two months since Biden began leading President Barack Obama’s task force on gun violence.

He’s met with 229 groups, including governors, mayors, county executives, law enforcement officers, mental health experts, gun violence survivors, the National Rifle Association, religious organizations, sporting clubs, gun owners, and representatives from the movie and video game industries. Late last month, he sat down with retired military officials and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a prominent gun control advocate. He’s kept the issue of gun violence in the public eye by doing interviews with Field and Stream, Parents magazine and via a Google Plus hangout.

His message, at its core, is the same one that he drew from watching Delaware's cities cope with the violent ripple effects of the civil rights movement more than 40 years ago: that government does have a role to play in lessening violence and crime.

The question is whether he can build a coalition around that message, like he did during his first election to the Senate and with the pieces of legislation he pushed.

After one of his most recent stakeholder meetings, Biden said that there is "a generic consensus" behind "reasonable" legislative action in response to gun violence. The ability to define "reasonable" is the tricky part, though those who have worked with Biden say that distilling ongoing legislative debates into relatable terms is, in the end, his strong suit.

He's certainly trying. During his interview with Parents magazine, which took place via a Facebook town hall, a questioner asked how women are supposed to “protect ourselves” if Congress bans assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Biden responded that the government isn’t going to take away people's guns, and that women shouldn’t need an assault weapon to feel safe. Instead, he said, a shotgun would do the trick -- the same advice he gave his wife.

“If you want to protect yourself, get a double barrel shotgun," Biden said. "I promise you, as I told my wife … I said, 'Jill, if there's ever a problem, just walk out on the balcony here, walk out, put [up] that double barrel shotgun and fire two blasts outside the house.'"

“You don't need an AR-15," he said. "It's harder to aim, it's harder to use. And in fact, you don't need 30 rounds to protect yourself. Buy a shotgun. Buy a shotgun!"



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