WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden looked to the nation’s mayors Thursday to help rally public opinion in support of the Obama administration’s push for new legislation aimed at curbing gun violence.
“We have to do something,” Biden told the U.S. Conference of Mayors on the first day its three-day winter meeting in Washington. ”We have to act. We have to respond to the carnage on our streets and in our schools."
Biden found a friendly audience in the mayors, many of whom already had urged similar measures as the ones President Barack Obama proposed this week. The vice president acknowledged the mayors also were interested in other issues, including the debate over whether to raise the federal government’s debt ceiling, but said “as important as they are all, today we have a more urgent and immediate call – that is how to deal with the epidemic of gun violence.”
Conference president Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia, said the issue was likely to dominate the weekend meeting.
Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, S.C., a member of the group’s executive committee, expected gun safety to be the main topic at the committee’s closed meeting Friday. He estimated there are about 10 to 15 gun safety ideas that will be discussed.
Nutter was at the White House on Wednesday when Obama unveiled his plan that includes banning assault weapons, limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines and strengthening background checks.
But he said the conference has yet to take an official position, and he was unsure whether they’d take a position by the end of the weekend. He said many members were traveling Wednesday and needed time to study Obama’s wide-ranging plan.
The mayors already have called for similar gun safety proposals. In a Dec. 17 letter to the president, following the shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that left 20 children and six staffers dead, the leadership called on the president to implement those changes as well as to eliminate loopholes in background checks.
“Every day America’s mayors see the carnage caused by illegal guns and assault weapons that have no place on our nation’s streets,” Nutter said when introducing Biden.
Those thoughts were echoed Thursday by several mayors who said measures were needed to reduce the number of illegal guns on the streets.
“This isn’t about people owning weapons and using them for whatever legitimate purposes," said Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sylvester James Jr. “It’s about illegal guns being on the streets in the hands of people using them to commit crimes.”
Just last week, he said, children ages 2, 4, and 7 were killed by bullets shot through their home’s walls when a firefight broke out in their eastside Kansas City neighborhood.
But not all members are convinced an assault weapons ban is the answer.
Benjamin said an assault weapons ban “had merit,” but he stopped short of supporting such a proposal.
The former law enforcement officer described himself as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. But he said recent tragic shootings shows that something needs to be done.
“It’s always been a concern of my agents and my officers, 400 sworn who report to me now, that criminals have assault weapons and firepower that might rival or surpass theirs,” Benjamin said.
Biden acknowledged there was not unanimity among the mayors and that legislation would be difficult to get through a divided Congress.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are already digging in against the White House proposals.
“I will fight any effort to further infringe on the Second Amendment rights of American citizens, whether it is legislation or executive action by the President,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. “I am open to having a conversation about ways in which our nation can address mental health issues and reduce violence, but I will not stand by while the president and others try to restrict the rights of law-abiding American citizens.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called Biden’s pitch to mayors “just the start” of the administration’s press to rally support for its proposals. “We need everybody who believes this is a matter of concern . . . to speak up,” Carney said Thursday.
Biden said he and Obama would “take this fight to the halls of Congress and we’re going to take it beyond that.”