The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden pushes for federal gun buyback program, assault weapons ban in wake of mass shootings

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees forum in Las Vegas on Saturday. (Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg)

Former vice president Joe Biden said Monday he would push for a federal gun buyback program to take more weapons off the streets, as one effort to contain the epidemic of mass shootings.

Biden also said that he would attempt to enhance background checks and reinstitute the assault weapons ban, which he helped push through in 1994 but was unable to reauthorize a decade later.

When asked about criticism that a future Biden administration would take away people’s guns, he responded, “Bingo! You’re right, if you have an assault weapon.”

He went on to say that previously owned guns would not be confiscated, but he emphasized a national gun buyback program and a hope that some weapons could be banned.

“The Second Amendment doesn’t say you can’t restrict the kinds of weapons people can own,” Biden said. “You can’t buy a bazooka. You can’t have a flamethrower.”

During a CNN interview that aired Monday night, Biden offered his most extensive comments since the mass shootings over the weekend that left 31 dead in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.

Biden did not go as far as other Democratic candidates, who have called Trump a white nationalist and said that he should be held responsible for rhetoric that has led to violence.

“Clearly his actions have done nothing to do anything other than encourage this behavior,” Biden said. “I’m not sure what this guy believes. If he believes anything.

“There’s no question that his rhetoric has contributed to — at a minimum, at a minimum — of dumbing down the way in which we as a society talk about one another,” he added. “Look, we’ve always brought the country together. . . . He looks like he’s just flat abandoned the theory that we are one people.”

He pointed to ways in which Trump talks about Muslims, immigrants and people of color. “He talks about them almost in subhuman terms,” Biden said.

“The white supremacists, they’re winning the battle,” Biden said. “This is domestic terrorism.”

At one point Biden spoke about Republicans, calling them “our friends,” before stopping himself, saying he used the word “too lightly” and instead calling them “the folks on the right.”

“The American public unfortunately is getting exposed to just how deeply and badly this nation has been divided by the president . . . they are feeling it, they are seeing it, and it’s a different place,” Biden said. “People are beginning to understand the depth of the damage.”

He said he disagreed with the idea that some of the racially motivated violence should be attributed to mental illness.

“Hatred is sick, but it’s not a mental illness,” he said. “White supremacy is wrong. But it’s not mental illness.”

“Hatred is not necessarily — it’s sick, but it’s not a mental illness,” he said. “White nationalism is wrong. It is not a mental illness. It is hateful behavior.”

Biden was also asked about Trump’s suggestion that video games are part of the problem that has led to the epidemic of mass shootings.

“I’ve talked about it, too,” Biden said. “It is not healthy to have these games teaching kids this dispassionate notion that you can shoot somebody and just, you know, sort of blow their brains out.”

Reminded by host Anderson Cooper of the popularity of video games in Japan, Biden continued, “That’s my point — but it’s not in and of itself the reason why we have this carnage on our streets.”

Several times, though, Biden returned to Trump and the atmosphere created under his presidency.

“They do have a dog whistle; look, this is a president who has said things no other president has said since Andrew Jackson,” Biden said. “We’ve been through this before, in the ’20s with the Ku Klux Klan, 50,000 walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in pointed hats and their robes.

“This is about separating people into good and bad in his mind,” he added. “It’s about an access to power. It’s a trick used by charlatans all over the world: divide people. Divide people, pit them against one another.”

The interview concluded on an emotional note, with Cooper asking Biden about his advice to those who are grieving. Biden teared up as he provided extended remarks on a topic that he knows too well — seeing his first wife and daughter killed in a car accident in 1972, and his oldest son, Beau, die of cancer in 2015 — and apologized for getting so personal.

“There will come a time when you think of the person you lost, and it takes a long while. But you get a smile before you get a tear,” Biden said. “And that’s when you know you’re going to make it. And so many people have gone through what I’ve been through without the help that I had.”

He referenced his son — “I get up in the morning and I think to myself every morning ‘Is he proud of me? Am I doing what he wants?’ ” — but also the anger that he would sometimes feel.

“I just remember being so angry — angry at everything and, I shouldn’t say it but, angry with God, just angry,” he said. “And I remember, and people would come up to me and say — meaning well — ‘I understand’ — and you feel like saying, ‘You have no idea, you have no idea.’ ”

Turning toward those who have lost friends and family members, he urged them to stay engaged.

“There is hope. And think about what it means for those family members that you have left. They need you,” Biden said. “That’s why I think that it matters — the stories of these people — for the public to understand that this is not just a statistic. This is — this is who we are. Who they are. And it really is about reweaving that social fabric that holds a society together: honesty, decency, hope, leaving nobody behind, giving hate no safe harbor.”

“We don’t always live up to it,” he added. “But that’s who we are.”