A magazine for an AR-15 rifle is seen with ammunition. The AR-15 rifle was used during the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. (Photo illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday downplayed the importance of passing an assault weapons ban, even as Senate Democrats began a formal push to revive restrictions on those firearms.
"I'm much less concerned quite frankly about what you call an assault weapon than I am about magazines and the number of rounds that can be held in a magazine," said Biden, who discussed gun violence during a Google hangout Thursday afternoon.
With the chat, the vice president looked to sustain public pressure for national action on gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre of 20 elementary school children and 6 adults. President Barack Obama is pushing a comprehensive set of actions to reduce gun violence, including universal background checks for gun buyers, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and a ban on actual assault weapons.
In the wake of Newtown, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 56 percent of Americans believe gun laws should be more strict. The survey showed just 7 percent believe gun restrictions should be less strict.
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Still, Biden's comments and careful language -- "I don't view it as gun control, I view it as gun safety," he said -- underscored the political reality: Getting an outright ban through a divided Congress in the face of opposition from the National Rifle Association and other groups is unlikely, and the fight is likely to focus on other measures, like the background checks and limits on magazine size.
Biden's comments came hours after Senate Democrats, led by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, displayed various assault weapons at a Capitol Hill press conference. Feinstein introduced legislation Thursday to ban 158 specific types of those guns.
The bill would also ban magazines that can fire more than 10 rounds of ammunition at a time. Both are similar to proposals included in the White House recommendations.
Shooting victims and uniformed police officers were on Capitol Hill Thursday to endorse Feinstein's bill.
"If the slaughter of 20 babies does not capture and hold your attention, then I give up. Because I don't know what else will," said Charles Ramsey, the Philadelphia police commissioner and head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. "We have to pass legislation."
But Feinstein herself openly acknowledged that getting Congress to pass a weapons ban similar to the one that expired in 2004 will be difficult, if not impossible.
"Getting this bill signed into law will be an uphill battle, and I recognize that -- but it is a battle worth having,'' Feinstein said.
Biden pointed out Thursday that crimes with assault weapons aren't as widespread than gun violence perpetrated with other types of guns that have been equipped to fire dozens of rounds at a time.
Assault weapons "account for a small percentage of the gun crimes in American," said Biden, who led the White House task force on gun safety after Newtown.
"More people out there get shot with a Glock that has ... cartridges that you can have magazines that can put two, 10, 8, 12, 15, 30 shells in it, then from any assault weapon you see," Biden said.
He said that limiting magazines could have saved lives in Tucson, where former Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot and a 9-year-old girl was killed, and in Newtown, where shooter Adam Lanza might have had to stop 10 or more times to reload his gun.
The vice president did say that banning assault weapons would help make people safer.
The NRA dismissed Feinstein's bill, insisting gun bans "do not work."
"We are confident Congress will reject Sen. Feinstein's wrong-headed approach," the group said in a statement.