WASHINGTON - As Joe Biden prepared to sit down Thursday with the National Rifle Association, a nauseatingly familiar American news story was breaking— another school shooting, this one in California.
In the end, the latest such incident ended with a low casualty count — no fatalities, only one student injured, another student in custody. But the drama provided a fitting backdrop to the vice-president's meeting with the powerful lobby group so infamously opposed to stricter gun control laws.
Biden said Thursday he'd send proposals on curbing gun violence to Barack Obama by Tuesday, six days before the president's inauguration.
The recommendations are set to arrive on the president's desk after Biden spent the past two days meeting with various stakeholders, including gun control advocates, victims of gun violence and retailers like Walmart, where semi-automatic weapons are sold.
Gun control is a uniquely American debate, kicked back into overdrive following the horrendous mass shooting in small-town Connecticut last month that claimed 26 victims, including 20 elementary school pupils, aged just six and seven.
The perpetrator was a troubled young man toting his well-heeled mother's high-powered assault rifle. Adam Lanza killed himself on the scene.
At issue in the hot-button gun control debate is the country's historic affection for firearms resulting from a deep-seated distrust of government, and whether the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing the "well-regulated" right to bear arms, has been contorted by gun enthusiasts to a degree never intended by the country's Founding Fathers.
There are an estimated 300 million guns in the U.S., with at least one gun in about 45 per cent of all American households.
A new study on health and longevity in the United States has found that younger Americans have far higher rates of death than those in other industrialized nations. What's killing them? Guns, car accidents and drug addiction.
The tide may finally be turning on the NRA, especially in light of a news conference a week following Newtown in which executive director Wayne LaPierre reiterated the organization's fierce opposition to tighter gun control laws.
Instead, LaPierre pointed the finger at the mentally ill, the media and violent video games for the spate of deadly mass shootings. The solution, he said, was for schools to employ armed guards and for Americans to further arm themselves.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," he said.
There was more of the same from the NRA on Thursday after sitting down with Biden.
"We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen," the group said in a statement at the end of its 90-minute meeting.
Biden said Thursday that Newtown has changed Americans' opinions on gun control. A spate of recent polls support him, with most citizens now supporting tougher laws.
Even a survey of NRA members suggested a large majority of them were far more open to stricter gun control measures than the organization's leadership. Nonetheless, that hasn't stopped the NRA from gaining 100,000 new members since Newtown.
"There is nothing that has pricked the consciousness of the American people," Biden said, "nothing that has gone to the heart of the matter more than the visual image people have of little six-year-old kids riddled — not shot with a stray bullet — riddled, riddled, with bullet holes in their classroom."
He added that there is growing consensus about at least one gun control proposal.
"I've never heard quite as much about the need to do something about high-capacity magazines as I've heard spontaneously from every group that we've met with so far," he said.
The vice-president, however, is on the hot seat for suggesting on Wednesday that Obama could circumvent Congress and use "executive orders" to push through gun control.
In fact, there's little meaningful action the president can take without congressional co-operation, and some Republicans responded with outrage at the very suggestion.
"Vice-President Biden would do well to read the Second Amendment and revisit the meaning of the phrase 'shall not be infringed,'" Louisiana congressman Steve Scalise said in a statement.
"Bypassing Congress to implement radical policies is never acceptable."