Vice President Joe Biden took the administration's push for stricter gun laws to Connecticut on Thursday, delivering a forceful and often emotional appeal for stronger measures only miles from the elementary school where a gunman killed 26 people, including children.
"We have to speak for those 20 beautiful children who died 69 days ago, 12 miles from here," Mr. Biden said. "There is a moral price to be paid for inaction."
He was joined by Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who used the high-profile forum to propose tough new gun laws aimed at closing loopholes and banning the type of weapon used at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"Two months ago, our state became the center of a national debate after a tragedy we never imagined could happen here," the governor said. "We have changed. And I believe it is now time for our laws to do the same."
Many local, state and federal officials who spoke at the Western Connecticut State University forum in Danbury underscored their appeals for tougher gun laws with stories of personal loss, both at Newtown and other places across the nation.
Mr. Biden, who before speaking met privately with two families whose children were killed at Sandy Hook, seemed to struggle with his emotions as he recalled his own personal tragedy: the loss of his first wife and daughter. It was "not gunfire, but a truck" that took their lives, he said. Mr. Biden had just been elected to the Senate for the first time in 1972 when his wife, Neilia, and 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident. "My heart goes out to you," he said, noting that events such as the forum would inevitably cause families to relive their loss anew. "I didn't have the courage to do what you're doing."
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who introduced Mr. Biden, recalled his experiences with gun violence, first as a child living on Chicago's South Side and later as leader of that city's public school system. "We lost one child due to gun violence every two weeks," he said. Deadly violence was so common, Mr. Duncan said, that they created burial funds for families.
Mr. Malloy, seeking to seize the current focus on the issue, said he wanted the State Legislature to pass a bill that would require background checks for all gun purchases, ban large-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, expand a ban on assault weapons, require guns to be stored more safely and toughen enforcement of existing gun laws. The state legislation he proposed is similar to what the Obama administration is seeking to enact nationally.
While recent polls suggest broad national support for universal background checks, the other issues have proven more politically charged both across the country and in Connecticut.
Mr. Malloy framed the issue around some simple questions: "Questions like, why is the gun used at Sandy Hook not classified as an 'assault weapon' under today's law?" he said. "Why are background checks required when someone buys a gun in a store, but not when they buy it privately, or at a gun show? Why is there no limit on the size of a magazine that can be used in a semiautomatic weapon?"
In January, Mr. Malloy convened a Sandy Hook Advisory Commission to make specific recommendations in the areas of school safety, mental health and gun violence. The state's General Assembly also convened a bipartisan task force to look at many of the same issues. But Mr. Malloy said Thursday that to wait for their findings would "run a risk of letting this critical moment in history pass us by."
By jumping into legislative process, Mr. Malloy irked some legislators who wanted to see the bipartisan process set in motion play out. But gun control advocates and some Democrats feared that any bipartisan proposal would not address the most contentious issues, such as the assault-weapons ban and magazine capacity limits. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, so Mr. Malloy can push through the legislation without GOP support, although he has said he would prefer that both parties support the reforms.
By sending Mr. Biden to Connecticut to push for tougher gun laws, the White House continues to press the issue, even as the National Rifle Association has vowed to fight any new laws.
On Tuesday, Mr. Biden, speaking during a Facebook town hall event with Parents magazine, went out of his way to reassure people that tougher gun laws did not mean that the government will take away all guns. "No one's taking my shotgun," he said, adding that Americans who want a weapon for self-protection should "get a double-barreled shotgun."
"There are plenty of ways you can protect yourself and recreate without an AR-15," he said, referring to a military-style assault rifle used in several recent mass shootings.
Mr. Malloy also emphasized his commitment to the right to bear arms. "I have a great deal of respect and belief in the Second Amendment," he said. "But with every right comes a responsibility."
He noted that while Connecticut had tougher gun laws than many other states, the type of rifle used at Sandy Hook, the AR-15, is legal to purchase in the state. In proposing a broader ban on assault weapons, which would define them as any semiautomatic weapon that has at least one military-style feature, that type of gun would no longer be allowed to be bought or sold in the state.