Vice President Biden’s address to nearly 300 of the country’s mayors on Thursday couldn’t have come at a better time for the administration’s push to rally public support for its proposals on reducing gun violence.
Biden, headlining the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C., spoke of the Newtown, Conn., massacre as the clarion call for the administration’s proposals.
“Newtown ... affected the public psyche in a way I’ve never seen before,” Biden said. “The image of first-graders not just shot but riddled with bullets ... we have an obligation to respond intelligently to that crisis.”
Biden, who headed a task force that presented its recommendations to President Obama this week, said gun violence had become so regular in the country that small acts of violence didn’t shock the public anymore, a “coarsening” that he called “defining deviancy down.”
“We can no longer afford to define deviancy down,” he said. “We can’t wait any longer to take action. The time has come.”
The White House has support from many of the nation's big city mayors, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), and USCM President and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D), both of whom have been vocal proponents of firearms restrictions.
Nutter opened the USCM meeting, and the room quieted as he recounted the high-profile mass shootings of the past decade, beginning with Columbine and moving on through Virginia Tech, Tucson and Aurora.
“But then Dec. 14,” Nutter said. “A tragedy in Newtown that even after all the others we still cannot imagine ... a terrible unforgivable moment in American history. We cannot get those lives back ... we can and we must act to help protect the lives of those in the future.
"This has nothing to do with taking guns away from those who lawfully own them," he said. "We respect the Second Amendment ... but the right to own a firearm should not interfere with my right to live.”
That line stirred the room to loud applause.
In the immediate aftermath of Newtown, the USCM sent an open letter to Obama and Biden urging immediate action on gun reform.
On Wednesday, Obama and Biden, flanked by children they said wrote to the White House about gun safety, unveiled 23 executive actions the president signed into law. Those measures include efforts to improve existing background checks and gun safety, and even encourage doctors to ask patients about guns in their homes.
Obama also pressed lawmakers to quickly implement universal background checks on all firearm purchasers and restore the federal ban on military-style assault weapons and a limit on the size of ammunition magazines.
“Clearly the President listened to our call,” the USCM said in a statement. “We applaud him for issuing executive actions to reduce gun violence. And we applaud him for calling for critically needed legislation and urge Congress 'to do the right thing' and institute universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and strengthening penalties for gun trafficking.”
Biden’s speech was the latest salvo in a high-stakes fight, as the White House looks to publicly pressure Congress to act on Obama’s demand for new gun-ownership restrictions.
Obama has sought to rally public support in past battles over taxes and spending, and is leveraging his high approval rating and recent opinion polls that show public support for tighter gun restrictions in an effort to pressure Congress to take action.
On Thursday, Obama wrote an op-ed for the Connecticut Post — based in Bridgeport, just 20 miles from Newtown — urging lawmakers to “act soon” on his recommendations.
Also on Thursday, the White House sent a letter signed by Biden to its public email list looking to rally support for the president’s proposals.
The email directs supporters to the White House’s new multimedia website on preventing gun violence. The site heading reads “Now is the time to do something,” and features videos of Obama speaking about gun reform and pictures of him visiting young victims in the hospital.
Congressional Republicans and the nation’s pro-gun-rights groups, most notably the National Rifle Association (NRA), have said they will oppose Obama’s actions and proposals on guns, accusing him of seeking to gut the Second Amendment with policies that will do little to make the public safer.
Biden on Thursday said the administration’s proposed reforms would comply with the Second Amendment, while acknowledging it was a difficult federal issue to tackle because of different gun cultures in different states. The vice president said his home state of Delaware had a much bigger gun culture than most realized, primarily for duck hunting.
Gun-rights activists say criminals won’t abide by the new laws Congress imposes, so the laws will only affect law-abiding gun owners. They also argue that the legislation Obama is trying to get from Congress has been proven ineffective in the past.
The NRA has vowed “the fight of the century” in opposing Obama’s proposed initiatives.