By Philip Rucker
The Washington Post
DANBURY, Conn. — Vice President Joe Biden traveled Thursday to this New England town, 12 miles from where an elementary school became a scene of a slaughter in December, to make a fiery plea for Congress to toughen the nation's gun laws.
Vowing that there is "a moral price to be paid for inaction," Biden sought to shame lawmakers who are hesitant about voting for President Barack Obama's gun-control agenda.
"I can't imagine how we will be judged as a society if we do nothing," he said. "If you're concerned about your political survival, you should be concerned about the survival of our children. And guess what? I believe the price to be paid politically should go to those who refuse to act. . . .The American people are with us."
Biden, his voice growing louder and louder, delivered a point-by-point rebuttal of arguments made by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights activists. He contended that people do not need AR-15s and other military-style assault rifles for protection.
"They say, 'Well, it's about our culture,' " Biden said. "The facts are, our culture's not killing 25 people a day. It's weapons and high-capacity magazines. It's criminals who get guns without going through a background check."
Biden accused some questioners participating in his online chats of planting questions designed to place roadblocks to his gun-control agenda.
"They say, 'All you're going to do, Biden, you and the president, you're going to deny law-abiding citizens their rights under the Second Amendment,' " he said. "Not true."
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said in a statement responding to Biden's speech that "holding press conferences and making speeches will not make our country or our children safer."
"Prosecuting criminals, fixing our broken mental health system and placing law enforcement in schools will," Arulanandam said. "That's what the American people and the National Rifle Association support."
The vice president's remarks came at the end of a day-long conference at Western Connecticut State University, where much of the state's political leadership gathered to discuss federal legislation that could prevent shootings. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined Biden at the event.
Two months ago, a man fatally shot 20 young children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown. Emotions were raw at Thursday's gathering; many attendees were from the Newtown community.
Lynn McDonnell, whose daughter, Grace, died in the Newtown massacre, addressed the forum and said she was trying to be "fearless" in her efforts to push for tougher gun laws. She got choked up when she spoke of the students who were shot on Dec. 14.
"We owe it to our children, and I owe it to my daughter, Grace," McDonnell said.
Connecticut's two U.S. senators and the congresswoman who represents the Newtown area — all Democrats — gave speeches urging swift action on gun laws. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he thinks measures to require background checks for all gun buyers, as well as making firearm trafficking a federal crime, are "achievable."
"Two months ago, this topic was untouchable," Blumenthal said. "Today it is achievable and, in fact, unstoppable."
Said Sen. Chris Murphy: "Newtown did change everything. The obstacles and the barriers that have existed to changes in our gun laws for decades came crumbling down on December 14."
Yet the political reality in Washington is far more complicated than Blumenthal and Murphy suggested, with most Republicans and some Democrats hesitant or unwilling to support stricter federal weapons laws. Thursday's event did not include any gun-rights advocates or representatives of the gun industry.
The Newtown massacre prompted a national debate over gun laws and spurred Obama to prioritize the issue for the first time.
"Sometimes you pick the time; sometimes the time picks you," Duncan said. "Sadly, the time has picked us. And I'm just convinced that as a country, if we don't move forward in a thoughtful way to do something to protect our babies, it will never happen."
In January, Obama and Biden announced what would be the most far-reaching overhaul of gun laws in generations. They are pressing for universal federal background checks, as well as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Since then, Obama, Biden and other senior administration officials have traveled the nation to rally public support around their proposals.
Meanwhile, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat, announced state-level proposals Thursday for universal and comprehensive background checks for gun buyers, a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and steps to strengthen Connecticut's assault weapons ban.
"We run a risk of letting this critical moment in history pass," Malloy said. "None of us want that to happen, and none of us should let it happen."