The latest American mass shooting – this time, at an Oregon college – offered a grim reminder for Joe Biden: How little has changed since Sandy Hook.
“Unfortunately,” Biden said Thursday night, “this has been happening far too often.”
As vice president, Biden has been the point man on a series of initiatives, but few assignments have been as emotionally searing as leading the committee on gun violence in the wake of the massacre at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
He spent hours in the corridors of the Capitol, pushing lawmakers to support legislation to expand background checks. He repeatedly gathered with families of the 20 children and six adults killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook. He spoke proudly of how he met with 229 separate groups on all sides of the gun debate.
At the time, he spoke with a cautious sense of optimism.
“There’s a generic consensus – not unanimity – a consensus that is different than existed when I did this back in 1992 and 1993 to get to the ‘94 (crime) bill,” Biden told a Connecticut audience in February 2013. “The consensus is emerging. There’s a consensus on the types of action everybody thinks are reasonable we should take.”
That optimism soon faded.
And like other tasks on the vice president’s desk, the focus on gun violence slowly gave way to other challenges facing the administration, after Congress failed to act on any gun legislation proposed by the White House.
The shooting at the Umpqua Community College in Oregon on Thursday drew fresh attention to the administration’s frustration and failure to rally support for strengthening the country’s gun laws and dealing with other factors that led to another episode of deadly violence.
“Part of the dysfunction in our political system today is that there is an overwhelming consensus in America on two things that are equally defensive: the Second Amendment and sane gun legislation,” Biden said Thursday night, his voice free of the hope and optimism he once carried about the reform of gun laws.
As President Barack Obama has delivered one high-profile eulogy after another, from Tucson to Aurora to Charleston, the vice president worked behind the scenes on the gun issue. He spent week after week, meeting with law enforcement groups, the National Rifle Association, and representatives from the movie and video game industry, among others.
Even with decades of service in the Senate and Biden’s strong relationships with Republican leaders in Congress, the fierce resistance to new gun legislation thwarted nearly all of the administration’s plans. Organizing for Action, the political advocacy arm of the Obama re-election campaign, vowed to use its grassroots muscle to break the gridlock over guns, but those efforts never found success and fell into the backdrop.
The only achievements came on the margins, with 23 executive actions the president signed after efforts in Congress failed. One top accomplishment is the blocking of military-grade firearms from being brought back into the United States.
Two other provisions still being worked on inside the White House, officials said, include expanding mental health provisions on background checks and creating an independent agency for safety standards on gunlocks. A provision to increase research on violence at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been frozen because of a lack of Congressional funding.
A year after the Sandy Hook shooting, the vice president was back in Connecticut. He did not carry with him a big legislative achievement, but rather an announcement of $100 million in funding to expand services at community health centers for those trying to combat mental illness and addiction.
The frustration in his voice was palpable on Thursday night during a speech in New York, hours after the Oregon shooting that killed nine and the gunman.
“The Second Amendment doesn’t say you can own a bazooka. It doesn’t say you could own an F-15 with hellfire missiles,” Biden said, referring to a fighter jet.
He did not speak about his own political future – he’s in the process of deciding whether to run a third campaign for president. Nor did he make promises of gun measures to come, only describing the United States in stark terms: “The only civilized country where you have these massive murders.”