Gun Debate Escalates

By Record January 11, 2013 12:23 pm

Record - The region's top politicians faced continued pressure Thursday to take sides in the gun control debate, mirroring an intensified focus on the issue in Washington, following last month's horrific shootings of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.

New Jersey's Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney -- who may challenge Governor Christie in this year's gubernatorial election -- was the latest to make a statement on the issue, saying on Thursday that there is "always room for improvement," on gun control laws. But he stopped short of calling for definitive change in New Jersey.

Sweeney outlined his stance during a meeting with The Record's editorial board as Vice President Joe Biden was in Washington leading an effort to enact a comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence. Biden held back-to-back meetings with sporting groups, gun retailers and gun control advocates throughout the day and announced that he would deliver new policy proposals to President Obama by Tuesday.

Despite fresh opposition from the National Rifle Association, the Obama administration is assembling proposals to curb gun violence that would include a ban on sales of assault weapons, limits on high- capacity ammunition magazines and universal background checks for gun buyers.

Requiring all gun buyers to pass a federal background check could be a key part of a White House plan, Biden indicated.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Biden said he had found a "surprising recurrence of suggestions" for "universal background checks" in meetings with interest groups. Background checks are not currently required in private sales by unlicensed dealers, including transactions conducted at gun shows.

Sweeney's statements put him somewhere in the middle of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who called for new reforms to prevent gun violence during his State of the State address earlier this week, and Governor Christie, a Republican, who was challenged on national talk shows for leaving the topic out of his speech altogether.

"I think there's always room for improvement," Sweeney said, citing the closing of loopholes and mental health treatment as areas that could be enhanced.

But Sweeney, whose power base is in South Jersey, where hunting and gun ownership is prevalent, said, "It can't just be, 'Let's ban this gun and that gun.' "

Issue nationwide

He said the discussion should be a national one, with a focus on how to prevent guns from flowing into states like New Jersey, where gun laws are among the toughest in the nation, from states that have weaker restrictions.

"In New Jersey, people get popped on the corner, on the streets," he said. "They're not the people who went in the gun stores and bought those guns, so how did they get those guns?"

Cuomo, who is entering his third year in office in New York, made combating gun violence a feature of his State of the State address in Albany on Wednesday, loudly declaring "Stop the madness" and saying New York should lead on this issue.

Former New Jersey Gov. Richard J. Codey, another potential Democratic challenger in this year's gubernatorial contest, said on social media that he applauds Cuomo's stance, including his call for a new assault weapons ban.

Christie, however, told NBC "Today" host Matt Lauer that New Jersey has tough gun laws and the issue involves more than just controlling guns. He went on to mention violent video games, mental health and substance abuse as other areas to focus on. Later, on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Christie said any changes should be part of a "comprehensive" package.

Sweeney on Thursday said Christie can't be outspoken on gun violence because of the governor's national political ambitions, even though many New Jersey cities are struggling with the issue. Christie is widely viewed as a strong GOP candidate for president in 2016.

"He can't talk about guns," Sweeney said. "You saw that [Wednesday]."

In contrast, Sweeney said curbing gun violence is "a real issue."

"It's a real issue for one reason: We all have people we love and care about," Sweeney said.

Sweeney, however, didn't go as far as Cuomo did on Wednesday, citing examples of people who use high-powered guns legally at shooting ranges.

"When we have a discussion about guns, realize it's not the guns that kill people, it's people that kill people, they just use guns as a tool," he said.

But he added: "I think more can be done. Anybody who says there isn't more that can be done is not being honest."
Talks with NRA

The NRA, one of the pro-gun groups that met with Biden during the day, rejected the effort to limit ammunition and dug in on its opposition to an assault weapons ban, which Obama previously said he would propose to Congress.

"The vice president made it clear, made it explicitly clear, that the president had already made up his mind on those issues," NRA president David Keene said after the meeting. "We made it clear that we disagree with them."

Opposition from the well-funded and politically powerful NRA underscores the challenges that await the White House if it seeks congressional approval for limiting guns and ammunition. Obama can use his executive powers to act alone on some gun measures, but his options on the proposals opposed by the NRA are limited without Congress's cooperation.

Obama has pushed reducing gun violence to the top of his domestic agenda, putting Biden in charge of a task force to address the issue, following last month's massacre of 20 children and six adults in the Connecticut school.

"I committed to him I'd have these recommendations to him by Tuesday," Biden said Thursday, in a separate White House meeting with sportsmen and wildlife groups. "It doesn't mean it's the end of the discussion, but the public wants us to act."

The vice president later huddled privately with the NRA and other gun-owner groups for more than 90 minutes. Participants in the meeting described it as an open and frank discussion, but one that yielded little movement from either side on long-held positions.

Richard Feldman, the president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, said all were in agreement on a need to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and people with mental health issues. But when the conversation turned to broad restrictions on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons, Feldman said Biden suggested the president had already made up his mind to seek a ban.

"Is there wiggle room and give?" Feldman said. "I don't know."

White House officials said the vice president didn't expect to win over the NRA and other gun groups on those key issues.

But the administration was hoping to soften their opposition in order to rally support from pro-gun lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Biden's proposals are also expected to include recommendations to address mental health care and violence on television and in movies and video games. Those issues have wide support from gun rights groups and pro-gun lawmakers.

The president hopes to announce his administration's next steps to tackle gun violence shortly after he is sworn in for a second term. He has pledged to push for new measures in his State of the Union address.

Originally published by This article contains material from The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers. Email: and

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