Susan Walsh / AP
Published Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 | 9:59 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 | 2:30 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden vowed urgent action against gun violence in America Wednesday, pledging steps by the Obama administration that he said could "take thousands of people out of harm's way" and improve the safety of millions more.
But a day ahead of a meeting with the National Rifle Association, which has sunk past gun control efforts and is opposing any new ones, Biden signaled that the administration is mindful of political realities that could imperil sweeping gun control legislation, and is willing to settle for something less. He said the administration is considering its own executive action as well as measures by Congress, but he didn't offer specifics.
"I want to make it clear that we are not going to get caught up in the notion that unless we can do everything, we're going to do nothing," Biden told an array of gun control advocates, crime victims and others at the White House. "It's critically important we act."
Shortly after last month's slaughter of schoolchildren at Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama tasked Biden with heading a commission to come up with recommendations on gun policy by the end of this month. Obama supports steps including reinstating a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and closing loopholes that allow many gun buyers to avoid background checks.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says that some 40 percent of gun sales are made without background checks, such as at gun shows and over the Internet.
The tragedy in Newtown, in which 20 young children and six adults were gunned down by a man with a military-style semiautomatic rifle, has prodded the administration to act. Obama had remained largely silent on gun control after the 2011 shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people and wounded 12 others including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the Colorado movie theater killing of a dozen people and wounding of many more last July.
Connecticut is moving cautiously on gun control, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo in neighboring New York proposed a wide-ranging package of restrictions on Wednesday. He called for loopholes to be closed in a New York ban on assault weapons and ammunition magazines that carry more than 10 bullets. The Democrat also wants to require holders of handgun licenses to undergo follow-ups to make sure they are still qualified to possess a weapon, and he is calling for increased sentences for certain gun crimes.
Biden, referring to the Newtown shootings, said at the White House: "Every once in a while, there's something that awakens the conscience of the country, and that tragic event did it in a way like nothing I've seen in my career."
"The president and I are determined to take action. ... We can affect the wellbeing of millions of Americans and take thousands of people out of harm's way if we act responsibly."
Biden said that the administration is weighing executive action in addition to recommending legislation by Congress. Recommendations to the Biden group include making gun-trafficking a felony, getting the Justice Department to prosecute people caught lying on gun background-check forms and ordering federal agencies to send data to the National Gun Background Check Database.
Some of those pieces could happen by executive action, but congressional say-so would be needed for more far-reaching changes such as reinstating the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Congress let the ban expire in 2004 under heavy pressure from the NRA. Democrats blamed a backlash against some lawmakers who voted for its enactment 10 years earlier for steep election losses that year.
Since then Democrats have been wary of legislating on guns, and efforts have fizzled in Congress. Already there are signs any new legislative effort by Obama could face tough going. Some pro-gun Democrats have voiced doubts, and the Senate's top Republican has warned it could be spring before Congress begins considering any gun legislation.
Obama has said that his efforts on guns can be successful only if he has the support of the public, and advocates who attended Wednesday's Biden meeting said part of the White House message was for participants to spread the word and keep up pressure on Washington.
"They have made clear that they're in this for the long haul and they want us to be in this for the long haul," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Advocates participating in Wednesday's meeting, some of whom have been critical of Obama's silence on guns in the past, said they were optimistic that the president and Biden are committed to the effort this time around.
"I think it's for real," said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA.
For Biden, Thursday will bring a tougher audience when the NRA joins a meeting at the White House along with other gun-owner groups and retailers including Wal-Mart. NRA officials didn't return messages for comment Wednesday but the group's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, has dismissed the assault weapons ban as "a phony piece of legislation" and has recommended putting armed guards in all schools as a way to stop another school shooting.
Biden said he wanted to hear from "all parties, on whatever side of this debate you fall."
The president hopes to announce his administration's next steps to tackle gun violence shortly after he is sworn in for a second term on Jan. 21.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Julie Pace contributed to this report.