The Washington Post

Biden’s gun task force met with all sides, but kept its eye on the target

President Obama and Vice President Biden formally announced the specifics of their gun-control proposals in a press conference Wednesday. (Nicki Demarco/The Washington Post)

Vice President Biden was curt, avoiding confrontation when he sat down with the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates. He looked across the table in his ornate conference room and asked the NRA official if his group could back a ban on assault weapons.

“No,” was James J. Baker’s reply.

There was little discussion, no real debate over whether a 1990s ban had worked. The two men simply moved on. Biden, leading a task force to study gun violence, was certain of the course of action President Obama would end up taking, and Baker was just as certain that the NRA would work to stop it.

In the 33 days after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, gun control rocketed through what one administration official called “a time warp,” transforming from an issue that was politically off-limits to one at the top of Obama’s agenda.

At the center of the transformation was the Biden-led task force. It held 22 meetings, most of them in the same week and many stretching past two hours, Biden furiously scribbling notes in a black leather-bound spiral notebook. The group collected ideas from 229 organizations — or, as Biden put it in a speech last week, “reviewing just about every idea that had been written up only to gather dust on the shelf of some agency.”

President Obama proposed expansive gun-control policies aimed at curbing gun violence. The Obama administration can implement about half of the proposals, but the others — arguably some of the more critical initiatives — will require congressional approval.

The vice president personally placed phone calls, too, including a 45-minute chat one night with the parents of a student who died at Sandy Hook.

“It was like watching an entire term of Senate hearings compressed into a week,” said one administration official who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “He was gently interrogating witnesses, following up, finding common ground, finding discrepancies.”

The outcome was never in doubt, however. From the outset, Obama made clear he would champion universal background checks for all gun buyers and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

“I feel like to a certain extent they were checking the box, to say we’ve met with all the stakeholders and now we’re going to do what we’re going to do,” Baker, the NRA lobbyist, said of the task force.

Biden’s task force was less about determining which of the big-ticket items to recommend — it recommended them all — and more about involving each interest group in a process that could build a diverse coalition to lobby Congress.

A strategy took shape to undercut the NRA by appealing to its membership base through more friendly groups, such as evangelical pastors and sportsmen’s associations.

The representative of the hunters group Ducks Unlimited, for instance, presented Biden with a wooden duck decoy. In that meeting, Biden conceded that any push for universal background checks could include exceptions for gun transfers between family members.

How the NRA exerts influence over Congress

“He wasn’t challenging their positions,” said an official. “He was looking for space between their positions and where we are — space where things can happen.”

The task force also provided Biden with his latest prominent role on a high-profile issue. Biden looks to be at the center of every big policy push of the second term, from taxes and debt to the war in Afghanistan. His performance will affect not only his ambitions for a possible third run at the presidency, but also Obama’s legacy. On guns, an issue Biden knows well, he plans to go out on the hustings to rally public support.

Obama ultimately accepted all of the 19 executive actions that Biden recommended last week, and four more were added in the final hours before the two men stood in a White House auditorium to present them to the public.

An emotional session

Soon after Obama assigned Biden to lead the effort, aides including Bruce Reed, Biden’s chief of staff and a veteran of negotiating the 1994 crime bill, asked gun control advocates to quickly submit their policy wish lists.

Meetings were scheduled, the first with law enforcement leaders. In a session with clergy, Biden was political and strategic, urging them to preach the virtues of gun control.

He told them the country was in “a new moment, and we need to do every effort to make sure this moment does not pass us by,” recalled the Rev. Michael McBride, an organizer for the PICO Network. “He appealed to our moral authority,” McBride added.

The task force’s longest and most emotional session came when Biden met with representatives of groups advocating gun control, including a handful of family members of shooting victims. Biden voiced a rare admission of regret. Unlike them, he said, he didn’t have the wherewithal to champion reforms after the truck accident that killed his wife and young daughter 40 years earlier.

Participants sat in silence as Biden spoke about the Dec. 18, 1972, accident. To those listening, it was clear that the confluence of the 40th anniversary of his own tragedy and the Connecticut shooting, both coming in the days before Christmas, weighed on Biden’s mind.

“I know from experience there’s not a single thing we can do to bring back your spouse or daughter or your child,” Biden said, according to several participants.

Biden said he still wishes he had been able to do something following the accident, perhaps push for tougher tractor-trailer safety regulations, just as many of the shooting victims’ survivors were now dedicating themselves to gun control.

“You have more courage than I did,” he said, as tears welled in the eyes of several people around the table.

One of the participants was Lonnie Phillips, whose stepdaughter Jessica Ghawi was killed in last summer’s movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colo. Phillips said Biden’s comments left him and his wife, Sandy, feeling that “we weren’t there just to be used as an emotional attachment to what he was doing.”

“We felt like he understood, and we were there for a reason,” said Phillips, who is working with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

In a meeting with leaders of the video game industry, Biden was argumentative, challenging executives who argued that games rife with deadly shootouts and bloody fights could in no way be tied to violent behavior in real life.

The NRA and congressional Republicans have singled out video game makers as part of the gun violence problem. Although their industry was largely spared in the administration’s proposals, Biden used his meeting to issue a warning: While there is no scientific proof that violent games cause bad behavior, the public believes that a connection exists.

What if research someday showed a link between violent games and some high-risk kids, Biden asked? What would you do then?

When several executives argued that games can have positive, educational value, but then added with certainty that there could be no negative effects, Biden snapped, “Don’t give me that malarkey,” according to a participant.

Karl Slatoff, chief operating officer of Take-Two Interactive Software, maker of Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption and other popular games, told the vice president that products created by his and other game firms were an “art form,” according to several meeting participants. The comment stuck with Biden. As he wrapped up the session later, the vice president told the group that he couldn’t see how “chopping someone’s head off” reflected any form of art or had any “socially redeeming value,” according to a participant.

The White House expected the most contentious meeting to be with the NRA and five other gun rights organizations. On Jan. 10, as Biden entered the conference room and shook hands with his guests, he exchanged friendly banter with Baker, the NRA lobbyist. He recalled working with him years ago on an issue in his home state of Delaware, where Baker also has a house.

But as the meeting got underway, Biden made what another participant interpreted as a threat.

“He said that he had had a meeting with the interfaith community and those that had always been on the pro-gun side had changed, the evangelicals and Pentecostals,” said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association. “What he was saying is, your support is eroding. . . . This issue is moving and that we ought to get on board.”

After Baker told Biden that the NRA would not support an assault weapons ban or limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines, Baker said the 1994 assault weapons ban had not worked and that such policies violated the Second Amendment.

“We thought that we were going to have a discussion about the specifics of why, and we simply didn’t,” Baker said. “I gave what we considered to be good reasons for our opposition to it. And, basically, that was the end of the conversation on the subject.”

As it turned out, any further discussion was pointless. Obama had already made up his mind.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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