Joe Biden Raises the Stakes in Promising Executive Action on Gun Control

The veep sent a clear signal as his task force convened that the White House will act. By Howard Kurtz.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

If there were any lingering doubts about the administration’s determination to act on gun safety, Vice President Biden dispelled them on Wednesday.

With his passionate words before the cameras—and the decision to admit cameras to the start of his first White House meeting on the subject—the veep served notice that the issue won’t be allowed to fade quietly. You don’t stage that kind of show and then bring forth a popgun.

“Every once in a while,” Biden said quietly, “something awakens the conscience of the country.” And lest anyone think he was all talk, Biden said “the president and I are determined to take action,” that “it’s critically important we act,” and that “this is not an exercise in photo opportunities.”

In politics, that’s known as upping the ante.

The vice president, whose task force on guns is slated to make recommendations by the end of January, was sitting down with gun-control advocates and victims of gun violence. He will meet Thursday with gun-ownership groups, including the NRA, and plans other sessions with entertainment and videogame executives and, in a last-minute switch by the company, officials at Walmart.

This orchestrated rollout doesn’t change the strong opposition any gun legislation faces on Capitol Hill, where Republicans generally march in lockstep with the NRA and Democrats have been fearful of the gun issue for two decades.

Some activists, though, see a transformed landscape.

“This moment is undoubtedly different,” Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, who attended the White House session, told The Daily Beast. “There’s an unprecedented resolve for creating change. We’ve seen this by the outpouring of support.”

If so, the action isn’t confined to Washington. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his State of the State address on Wednesday, called for tightening a New York ban on assault weapons and eliminating high-capacity magazines.

The gun issue continues to get traction in the media as well, despite predictions that the story would fade once reporters pulled out of Newtown, Conn. In a confrontational interview that immediately went viral, CNN’s Piers Morgan battled with conservative talk-show host Alex Jones, who backs an oddball petition to deport the British journalist. Jones went on a rant, virtually uninterrupted by Morgan, in which he invoked Hitler and Stalin and warned that “1776 will commence again if you try to take our guns.”

Joe Scarborough, who put aside his earlier opposition to gun control, has repeatedly returned to the issue on his MSNBC show as well.

Even Jon Stewart made an impassioned plea for gun control on The Daily Show.

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The political sensitivity of the subject was underscored by the way that conservative websites jumped on a single comment made by Biden, who was flanked by Attorney General Eric Holder. “There is executive action that can be taken,” Biden said. “We haven’t decided what that is yet.”

A senior administration official said officials are still studying what could be done by executive order and whether the task force will go that route. Such a move could anger Congress and would likely not include the most eagerly sought gun-control reforms.

Obama has said he wants to restore the Clinton-era ban on assault rifles, limit high-capacity magazines, and close the loophole in which background checks are not required for purchases at gun shows.

Gross praised the White House effort and said that “a middle ground for change clearly exists for things like background checks.” He said this could be accomplished “in a way that’s respectful of the Second Amendment.”

The politics of gun control may be complicated by the budget mess, especially if House Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling as leverage in the talks, which could make cooperation with the White House all but impossible.

After previous mass shootings—Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora—there have been regular rumblings about gun control. And in every instance, this was quickly quashed by the politics of the Hill. Obama barely spoke about gun control in his first term, and the issue seemed to vanish from Washington’s radar, even as such local officials as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who sent an envoy to Wednesday’s meeting) tried to keep it alive.

Anyone who saw Obama choke back tears when he first responded to the Newtown tragedy knew he was deeply affected. The question was whether he would follow through and take on one of the capital’s most entrenched lobbies.

With Biden’s determined words in the Old Executive Office Building, we got that answer.