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Biden draws NRA ire in drive against gun violence

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (L) listens to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speak to representatives of gun safety and gun violence victi
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (L) listens to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speak to representatives of gun safety and gun violence victi

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden butted heads with the powerful National Rifle Association on Thursday in his drive to reduce U.S. gun violence, drawing complaints from the lobby group that the White House is trying to limit constitutionally protected gun rights.

Biden sat down for about an hour and a half of talks with an NRA representative and officials from other gun owners' groups after telling reporters he is likely to recommend background checks for all gun buyers and a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips.

"It is unfortunate that this administration continues to insist on pushing failed solutions to our nation's most pressing problems. We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen," the NRA said in a statement after the meeting.

Biden is heading a task force on reducing gun violence formed after a gunman shot dead 20 children and six adults last month at a Connecticut elementary school. Biden said he will make recommendations to President Barack Obama by next Tuesday.

The strong reaction by the NRA, a lobbying organization known for its influence with many lawmakers of both parties, illustrated the difficulty of changing gun laws in a country long accustomed to being able to purchase firearms under relatively loose regulations.

The U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.

The Biden task force is trying to reach a consensus on a set of recommendations quickly while there is still a mood for action in Congress after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

Adding urgency to the gun debate, a student armed with a shotgun opened fire at a California high school on Thursday, critically wounding a fellow student before two adult staff members talked the boy into giving up his weapon.

Moving quickly for Washington, Biden plans to turn over recommendations to Obama after only a few weeks of work. Biden said there is only a "tight window" for action.

"There is nothing that has pricked the consciousness of the American people (and) there is nothing that has gone to the heart of the matter more than the image people have of little 6-year-old kids riddled - not shot, but riddled, riddled - with bullet holes in their classroom," Biden said.

Attorney General Eric Holder also held talks on Thursday with major retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the largest U.S. gun seller, as well as Bass Pro Shops and Dick's Sporting Goods.

The Biden task force is grappling with elements that go beyond gun control measures, also looking into aspects of American popular culture.

The group held talks on Thursday with representatives of the movie industry and will also hear on Friday from the video game business. Both industries routinely feature gun violence.

BACKGROUND CHECKS

Meeting earlier with hunting and outdoor sports groups, Biden said two of his task force's recommendations are likely to be universal background checks for gun purchasers and a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips like the ones used in the Connecticut massacre.

The background check requirement would extend to all gun purchasers. This would close the "gun show loophole" in which vendors at open-air gun sales events can sell without a background check on the purchaser. It would also extend to private sales such as those conducted over the Internet.

The task force might also propose a ban on assault weapons like the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle used by the gunman in Newtown.

"There's an emerging set of recommendations not coming from me, but coming from the groups we've met with," Biden said.

Biden's office had no substantive reaction to the NRA statement, issued less than an hour after the talks ended.

"We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment," the NRA said.

"While claiming that no policy proposals would be 'prejudged,' this task force spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms owners - honest, taxpaying, hardworking Americans," the NRA added.

The NRA, which proposed after the Newtown shootings that armed security officers be stationed at U.S. schools, vowed to take "our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of Congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works - and what does not."

Obama will review the Biden group's ideas, decide which ones he wants to keep and then announce "a package of actions and proposals," the White House said. Obama will seek legislative action by Congress but may also try to get some of his objectives done through presidential executive orders.

U.S. lawmakers have not approved a major new gun law since 1994. A U.S. assault weapons ban lapsed in 2004.

More than a hundred scientists from virtually every major U.S. university told Biden's task force in a letter that research restrictions pushed by the NRA have stopped the United States from finding solutions to gun violence.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cut gun safety research by 96 percent since the mid-1990s, according to one estimate. Congress, pushed by the gun lobby, in 1996 put restrictions on CDC funding of gun research. Restrictions on other agencies were added in later years.

Biden said he would like federal agencies to have the ability to get information on what kind of weapons are used most to kill people and what kind of weapons are the most trafficked.

"I'm no great hunter - it's mostly skeet shooting for me - I don't quite understand why everybody would be afraid of whether or not we determine what is happening," he said.

Some journalists were allowed in for part of Biden's meeting with hunting groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. No such news coverage was arranged for the NRA meeting.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham)

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