By Philip Rucker
The Washington Post
— RICHMOND, Va. — The White House's campaign to mobilize public support around its sweeping gun-control proposals began in earnest here Friday, with Vice President Biden saying, "We have an obligation to act — not wait."
Biden focused in particular on the administration's proposal to require universal background checks for all gun buyers, without mentioning additional plans to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Administration officials said the the omission was not meant to imply a preference for one proposal over another, adding that background checks were particularly relevant for Virginia because of reforms that have been enacted there.
Biden, accompanied by several Cabinet secretaries as well as Sen. Timothy Kaine, D-Va. and Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va., met privately at Virginia Commonwealth University for more than two hours with officials who led the response to a 2007 mass shooting at another college, Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
The discussion focused almost exclusively on background checks — seen as the most likely of President Obama's four major legislative proposals to garner bipartisan support — as well as ways to strengthen mental health programs, according to two attendees, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the private meeting. One of those in attendance said proposed bans on assault weapons or high-capacity ammunition magazines came up briefly, while another said the subject did not come up at all.
In his remarks to reporters following the closed-door session, Biden said universal background checks would not infringe upon a law-abiding citizen's ability to buy a gun, but would merely help prevent criminals and other potentially dangerous people from obtaining weapons.
"There's certain things we know with certainty will diminish the prospects of what happened in Virginia Tech or what happened in any of these other mass shootings, including Newtown," Biden said.
After 32 people were shot dead at Virginia Tech, Kaine, then the state's governor, strengthened the state's background check system to include the mentally ill — a move Biden hailed as a national model.
"We don't have to despair about being able to reduce gun violence," Kaine said. "There are things you can do that work to reduce gun violence." He added that Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, then the state's attorney general, helped devise the state's background checks system after Virginia Tech.
When asked how the administration could get the necessary votes in the Senate and House to pass its gun-control proposals, Biden responded: "Persuasion and information."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said after Biden's remarks that an assault-weapons ban remains a priority for the administration.
"These are all priorities," Carney said. "Because they are difficult does not mean we shouldn't pursue them."
Biden's visit to Richmond is the first of many trips that he and Obama are expected to make outside Washington to drum up support for their gun-related agenda, which includes universal background checks for all gun buyers, tougher gun-trafficking laws and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
"We're going to continue to go around the country and tap into those people who have experienced similar circumstances and try to get the best minds to give us further insight into what the president's trying to do," Biden said.
Biden said "the consciences of the nation were actually shaken" by a Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 small children and six adults.
"We cannot remain silent in the country," Biden said. "What happened up in Newtown: beautiful little babies, six and seven years old, riddled — riddled — with bullets, 20 of them dead. I met with most of their parents. It is a national tragedy and a window into a vulnerability people feel about their safety and the safety of their children."
The efforts by Obama and Biden are designed to showcase a broad coalition backing the president's proposals, which are dependent on winning the support of wavering centrist Democratic senators and some Republicans.
In Washington Friday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced a roster of witnesses for a gun-control hearing next week that will include National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre and astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who survived a 2011 mass shooting in her Tucson district.
Booking Kelly and LaPierre on the same panel is likely to produce dramatic testimony given their strongly opposing views. Kelly and his wife have launched a new gun-control group aimed at winning centrist support for reforms.
The NRA, meanwhile, has sharply condemned Democratic gun proposals and produced an advertisement accusing Obama of hypocrisy because his underage daughters receive armed protection.
"If we lose this one, we lose EVERYTHING," the NRA said in a fundraising plea sent to members Friday, adding that "together, we will save the Second Amendment from this brutal attack."