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His proposals signal the beginning of the first major gun debate in years. If successful, it would be the first such legislation to pass in Washington in two decades.

Mr. Biden said he knows the effort in Congress will be difficult.

“I have no illusions about how hard it’s going to be, but I know this: We have no choice,” he said. “Maybe what happened in Newtown is a call to action about more than just gun violence, about civility in our society.”