Administration Still Fighting For Assault Weapons Ban, Biden Says
Vice President Joe Biden told All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block in an interview Wednesday that he and the Obama administration plan to continue to fight for a ban on assault weapons to be included in a larger bill in Congress.
That despite signs that such a ban doesn't have enough support, even from members of Biden's own party, to make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Biden was the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman in 1994 during the passage of a 10-year-long assault weapons ban that was part of a larger crime bill. He reminded Melissa that even many people doubted the prohibition on the military-style weapons could pass.
This week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, indicated he would not include the controversial assault weapons ban in the legislation he plans to introduce on the Senate floor.
To Melissa's question as to whether the administration planned to continue fighting for a ban that for all the world appeared a lost cause, Biden said:
"I'm still pushing that it pass — we are still pushing that it pass. The same thing was told to me when the first assault weapons ban in '94 was attached to the Biden crime bill, that it couldn't possibly pass. It was declared dead several times.
"I believe that the vast majority of the American people agree with us, the vast majority of gun owners agree with us, that military-style assault weapons are — these are weapons of war; they don't belong in the street.
"And [in] the recent decision declaring the right of someone to own a weapon in their home for self-protection, Justice [Antonin] Scalia acknowledged that you can constitutionally ban certain types of weapons. And so I haven't given up on this."
During the shock and anger that followed the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., President Obama named Biden to lead a task force that would recommend changes to the nation's gun laws.
Besides the proposed assault weapons ban, Biden's group also suggested a ban on high-capacity magazines that would limit the number of rounds to 10 from as many as 30.
Biden said if Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, had been forced to reload because his magazine had fewer rounds, some of the 26 children and adults might have survived. He said this on limiting the capacity of magazines:
"... It in no way violates anyone's constitutional right. What is the downside of saying, you can have clips with only 10 rounds in it? What does that violate? Hunting? Sportsmanship? If you need more than 10 rounds to hunt, and some argue they hunt with that many rounds, you shouldn't be hunting. If you cant get the deer in three shots, you shouldn't be hunting. You are an embarrassment."
Several times, Biden told Melissa the "vast majority" of Americans supported a ban on military-style weapons. She questioned Biden's use of that description, however, citing a Pew Research Center poll that indicated that 56 percent of Americans support such a ban. "A very slim majority," Melissa said.
"That's a pretty good majority," Biden responded.
"Not the vast majority," Melissa said.
"No," Biden said, agreeing it wasn't "vast."
"But 56 percent of the people, and other polls show it higher," he said. "Other polls show it higher," repeating himself for effect. "That's the lowest number I've heard. Even a majority, most polls show a majority of NRA members initially came out saying they support it. Now it's closer.
"But look, there are multiple pieces of the gun-safety initiative we're pushing. And we believe that we will get them now or we'll get them all eventually."
One piece of the administration's gun-control legislation that appears to have wider support is its push to expand background checks on gun buyers.
The current system requires gun retailers from Wal-Mart to small mom-and-pop shops to run background checks on gun buyers. But the infamous gun-show loophole allows gun sellers at such shows to sell weapons without a background check.
Asked what it would mean for the administration's efforts if an expansion of the background check system was all that came of its current push, Biden said:
"That would be gigantic. That would be gigantic. Let me put this in perspective. When the Brady legislation passed back in '94, the NRA and a significant portion of the opposition were absolutely opposed to it. They called it registration. They came up with all these scare tactics about how this was going to be terrible. Guess what? It worked. ... They said felons will never go and get a background check to buy a gun. Two million felons have tried to buy a gun, and because of the background check, been denied."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I'm Melissa Block. And we continue our series on guns in America with an interview with Vice President Joe Biden. He's been leading the Obama administration's efforts on gun control. Our interview coincides with news that the proposed assault weapons ban is being stripped from a broader gun control bill in the Senate. The Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, says it doesn't have the votes to pass. It will be voted on, instead, as an amendment, out of fears it would otherwise scuttle the entire bill. I talked with Vice President Biden earlier today, at his residence.
Vice President Biden, welcome to the program.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's a delight to be with you.
BLOCK: Let's start with the assault weapons ban.
BLOCK: It does appear to be dying in the Senate. Is the White House still pushing to have that passed? Do you assume that it's now not going to happen?
BIDEN: I'm still pushing that it pass. We are still pushing that it pass. The same thing was told to me when the first assault was - ban in '94 was attached to the Biden crime bill; that it couldn't possibly pass. It was declared dead several times. I believe that the vast majority of the American people agree with us; the vast majority of gun owners agree with us; that military-style assault weapons are what - these are weapons of war. They don't belong in the street. And in a recent decision declaring the right of someone to own a weapon in their home for self-protection, Justice Scalia acknowledged that it's - you can constitutionally ban certain types of weapons. And so I haven't given up on this.
BLOCK: You're going to push for it. The majority leader, Harry Reid, says he doesn't even have 40 votes for the assault weapons ban.
BIDEN: Well, look, last time we passed it, we only had seven Republican votes in 1994 and...
BLOCK: But he doesn't have the Democrats.
BIDEN: Well, again, I just - I've never found it makes any sense to support something, and declare there's no possibility of passing. There's a lot happening. Attitudes are changing. And I think the president and I are going to continue to push, and we haven't given up on it.
BLOCK: If you can't get the assault weapons ban through the Senate, does that represent a failure on the administration's part; and on your part, as someone who's really spearheaded this effort?
BIDEN: Well, look, obviously, you and others, informed in the media, will make that judgment. But my experience, having been the only guy that did this once before - along with Dianne Feinstein and others - is that this doesn't necessarily happen in one fell swoop. There's a determination to get a lot - for example, when the - when the assault weapons ban was part of the so-called Biden crime bill that had 100,000 cops in it, first was taken out; then we got it back in. We had the background check bill, the Brady bill in it, and that was - we were able to pull it out and get that passed separately, and then come back and get the rest of this passed.
So I don't - I don't see this as there's an automatic end point; that OK, there's one vote. This is it. It fails. Now, we're - we move on. We are going to continue to push for logical gun safety regulations. Eventually, the will of the people is going to - are going to prevail, and we're going to keep at it.
BLOCK: You said earlier that you think the vast majority of the people agree with your position on this.
BLOCK: The latest numbers I saw, from the Pew poll, show 83 percent support background checks on private gun sales. But if you look at the assault weapons ban, it's much narrower. It's 56 percent, a very slim majority.
BIDEN: That's a pretty good majority. When everybody...
BLOCK: Not the vast majority.
BIDEN: No. But 56 percent of the people. And other polls show it higher. Other polls show it higher. That's the lowest number I've heard. Even a majority - most polls show a majority of NRA members initially came out saying they support it. Now, it's closer. But look, there are multiple pieces of the gun safety initiative we're pushing, and we believe that we will get them now, or we'll get them all eventually.
BLOCK: If it happens that the only thing that comes through the Senate right now is an expanded background-check provision - universal background checks - is that acceptable?
BIDEN: That'd be gigantic.
BIDEN: That'd be gigantic. Let me put this in perspective. When the Brady bill, the Brady legislation passed back in '94, the NRA and a significant portion of the opposition were absolutely opposed to it. They called it registration, and they came up with all these scare tactics about how this was going to be terrible. Guess what? It worked. Two million - they said felons will never go and get a background check to buy a gun - 2 million felons have tried to buy a gun and because of the background check, been denied. And even with that, there is probably a 40 percent loophole that exists in the law.
BLOCK: You're talking about people who buy guns...
BIDEN: People who buys guns through gun shows...
BLOCK: ...through gun shows.
BIDEN: ...and other means that they're not required a background check. Now, at the time, we didn't even - no one anticipated that all of a sudden, these gun shows would proliferate and the fact that it didn't include them. We had to compromise to get it done, to get this passed. And the bottom line is that it works. It makes a big difference. And now, strengthening the background check, when you explain to people - you have a large number of the American people, by most surveys, supporting background checks. And they think they're universal already, most of them. Most Americans think there's already universal background checks. They don't understand why there wouldn't be a background check to purchase a weapon.
BLOCK: Do you think it would be any easier to get a ban on large-capacity magazines through Congress, than it appears to be to get the assault weapons ban through?
BIDEN: Probably. As you know, the original bill in '94 had a separate ban on the size of magazines, and it was in place until 2004. And there's evidence that it actually - it saved lives. It reduced the number of people who were killed. And all you have to - and you don't even have to go back to what it did before. Look now. In Newtown, those 20 beautiful babies and six serious people trying to help them - administrators and teachers - all dead today. The police responded in two and one-half minutes - two and one-half minutes.
This guy had 30-round clips in it. He had to use one clip to break through the door, to shoot the locks on the doors. He went into one room and another room, etc. They were there in two and a half minutes. If that had been only 10 rounds, who knows whether one or two or five or seven of those people would be alive today.
BLOCK: Or he could have just reloaded and - he could have loaded another magazine.
BIDEN: Well, the answer is, that's not true. That's not true because he reloaded with 30-round clips, and that's as far as he got. Just do the math. If he had to reload three times as many times - look what happened to Gabby Gifford. That guy had multiple rounds. As he was trying to reload the second time, he fumbled. That's when they knocked his arm. Had they not knocked his arm, he would - and he was overcome. If it had been 10 rounds the first time around, and the second time he put another 10-round in, there would be - there would be people alive today.
BLOCK: When you look back at the crime bill...
BIDEN: And by the way, if I can add one thing...
BIDEN: ...there's no limitation - it in no way violates anyone's constitutional right. What is the downside of saying, you can have clips with only 10 rounds in it? What does that violate - hunting, sportsmanship? If you need more than 10 rounds to hunt - and some argue they hunt with that many rounds - you shouldn't be out there hunting. You can't get the deer in three shots, you shouldn't be hunting. You're an embarrassment.
BLOCK: Gun owners will say, but all of these lines are arbitrary.
BIDEN: Sure, they're arbitrary.
BLOCK: Why 10 rounds? Why not seven? Why not 12?
BIDEN: Why age 16? Why age 18 to vote? Why? Because society has concluded that the capacity to keep yourself from doing damage and/or allowing others to do damage, whether it's behind an automobile - you don't let 9-year-olds drive. Well, that's arbitrary. There are some 9-year-olds who can probably drive better than some 16-year-olds. Putting 10 rounds, limiting it to 10 rounds, makes a difference; makes a difference in terms of how many shots you can get off before someone can intervene.
BLOCK: If you look at the numbers, the vast majority of gun deaths in the country are not from assault rifles, or assault weapons.
BIDEN: That's true.
BLOCK: They're from handguns.
BIDEN: Oh, that's exactly right.
BLOCK: Are you really fixing the main problem?
BIDEN: No, we aren't fixing the problem. But that's like saying, you know, does it make any sense to ban cigarette smoking while you still have global warming going on? Come on. Does that fix the environmental problem? No, but it saves some people's lives. Do you say, well, the fact that we took lead out of gasoline, does that solve the problem? No, it doesn't. We still have too many emissions going into the air. But it helps. I find that a bizarre argument - if it doesn't solve the whole problem.
But guess what? The fact is that it does impact. It does. And the people I go to, to look to when we talk about assault weapons and magazines - talk to the police officers. They're tired of being outgunned. They're tired of being outgunned.
BLOCK: Well, when you say it does save people's lives, there has to be some sort of calculus here, right? There has to be...
BIDEN: That's right.
BLOCK: ...some point at which you say, is the number of lives that we save, does that outweigh the burden - the restrictions that we've put on millions of Americans? Or how do you draw that conclusion?
BIDEN: The burden is de minimis. Tell me what the burden is that you have to buy three clips with 10 rounds, versus one clip with 30? The cost is the same. What's the burden? What am I doing to infringe upon your constitutional right? I find that - I mean, what burden? I can name - you could think of a thousand burdens we put on people that, in fact, are de minimis; that impact positively on society. And we say - I mean, it's one thing if you can tell me that the burden is onerous.
First of all, the vast majority of gun owners aren't running around with clips that hold 30 rounds. We're talking about - and there's no good data; here's part of the problem. Part of the problem is when the authorization had to be renewed for much of this in 2004, restrictions were placed on the ability of the government even to keep data.
BLOCK: Why not - what's the problem with having a gun registry; a national, mandatory gun registry? We license our cars; why shouldn't we have to license and register our guns?
BIDEN: Because there is a - this, where you start to cross a cultural line. The idea that you register your guns, it makes - it may make logical sense to say this makes - that - but there isn't a constitutional right to own an automobile. There is a Second Amendment, constitutional right to own a weapon; the right to have and bear arms. 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 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.
You don't need to register guns to have logical gun safety laws. There is a healthy gun culture in this country, with regard to hunters. They husband their guns and their weapons. They lock them up. They use them responsibly. They pass them down to their children - like my dad. This is about keeping guns out of the hands of people who constitutionally, the government is able to prohibit from owning those guns.
BLOCK: Mr. Vice President, thank you for your time.
BIDEN: Thank you.
BLOCK: That's Vice President Joe Biden, speaking with me at his residence here in Washington. Tomorrow on the program, we continue our series on guns in America. I'll try my hand at a shooting range; and we'll have a conversation between a group of people who own and love guns, and some who don't. That's coming up tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.