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April 23, 2014

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Biden asks clergy to make moral argument on guns

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Charles Dharapak/AP

Vice President Joe Biden speaks about gun legislation in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at The White House in Washington on Tuesday, April 9, 2013. The Obama administration continued its efforts to pressure Republicans, with Attorney General Eric Holder also speaking at The White House.

Updated Monday, May 6, 2013 | 8 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden wants pastors, rabbis and nuns to tell their flocks that enacting gun control is the moral thing to do. But another vote may have to wait until Congress wraps up work on an immigration overhaul.

Biden met for 2 1/2 hours Monday with more than a dozen leaders from various faith communities — Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh, to name a few. Both Biden and the faith leaders encouraged each other not to give up on what has been an arduous and thus far fruitless effort by Biden and President Barack Obama to pass new gun laws in the wake of December's schoolhouse shooting in Connecticut.

Around a large, circular table in a conference room on the White House grounds, Biden waxed optimistic about prospects for passing a bill, according to four participants who spoke to the Associated Press after the meeting. Biden's chief of staff, Bruce Reed, joined the group, as did a handful of Obama aides who work on faith-based outreach. The meeting closed with a meditation and a prayer for action.

But don't expect a vote any time soon.

"The conversation presumed the vote would happen first on immigration," said Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "That seemed to be the back-and-forth on both sides — that immigration was a key priority right now. When that vote took place, it would be an opportunity to refocus on this."

A far-reaching immigration overhaul is in the early stages of advancing through the Senate. Obama said last week he's optimistic it can be completed this year.

Although momentum on gun control stalled in the Senate last month, Biden has insisted the issue is very much alive, and has been meeting regularly with gun violence victims and law enforcement to build support for a second go at legislation to expand background checks, improve mental health care and take other steps to reduce gun violence. Monday's session reflects an attempt to broaden the coalition calling for new gun laws to include a wide array of religious groups — including evangelicals and conservative faith communities.

Without naming names, Biden alluded to senators who opposed background checks — the centerpiece of the Obama administration's push — who have faced a backlash in the weeks since and could possibly be picked off if the issue comes back for a vote.

Lingering concerns from some participants illustrated the ongoing challenge the administration faces in winning support for the proposals, even though Biden and Obama regularly tout polls suggesting they enjoy broad support. Some participants raised questions about whether background checks could lead to a national gun registry or whether mental health provisions would be used to create a list of individuals permanently banned from obtaining guns.

"There were some very powerful evangelical leaders in the room who needed to be reassured," said Pastor Michael McBride of the PICO National Network, a faith-based organizing network.

Citing what he described as misinformation from the National Rifle Association and others, Biden said the renewed push for gun control must correct misconceptions about what the proposals do and don't do, participants said. He asked clergy to keep up the pressure and to reframe the debate for their followers in moral terms.

A spokeswoman for Biden declined to comment on the meeting. But Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said a diverse spectrum of denominations and religious orders were represented. She said they included evangelical leaders Richard Cizik and Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, as well as Sister Marge Clark of Network, a Catholic group.