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By Edith Honan
DANBURY, Conn., Feb 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking 10 miles (16 km) from the site of the Connecticut elementary school massacre, argued on Thursday that public opinion had turned against the gun rights lobby.
"I say it's unacceptable not to take this on. ... I believe the price to be paid politically is for those who refuse to act," Biden told a conference on gun violence in his first visit to the area since a gunman killed 20 school children and six adults in the nearby town of Newtown on Dec. 14.
The courage displayed by the affected Newtown families should rub off on elected officials, Biden said. "It's not too much to ask the political establishment ... to show some courage also."
Biden has taken the lead in promoting President Barack Obama's gun-control proposals, including universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a federal gun-trafficking statute, more police, and more research on gun violence.
Biden told the Gun Violence Forum hosted by the state's two Democratic U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, that people in Connecticut need not surrender to hopelessness in the wake of the shooting because there is "much we can do."
After decades in which the pro-gun lobby as exemplified by the National Rifle Association has dominated the debate, gun-control advocates say public opinion has changed.
About three-quarters of Americans surveyed support proposals to ban the sale of automatic weapons, ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and expand background checks on all gun buyers, according to an online Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Jan. 17.
Biden acknowledged that no reforms will "save every life" but said he believed enacting Obama's proposals would mean "fewer children will die."
The ideas were largely echoed by a proposal put forward on Thursday by Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy.
Connecticut already has an assault weapons ban, and Malloy is urging state lawmakers to expand it to include any semi-automatic weapon with at least one military-style characteristic, such as a pistol grip, bayonet lug or flash suppressor.
"Two months ago, our state became the center of a national debate after a tragedy we never imagined could happen here," said Malloy, who spoke shortly before Biden. "We have changed. And I believe it is now time for our laws to do the same."
Whatever laws Connecticut enacts, "the need for strong federal legislation has never been clearer," Malloy said.
Connecticut, a largely Democratic state, already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country.
Mark Boughton, the Republican mayor of Danbury, said he believes there was common ground that 70 percent of the state could support.
He also called for a common solution among the states.
"You can't have these silos of different state laws," Boughton said. "It's going to take 10 years to address some of these challenges." (Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Walsh)