Biden tackles gun control, voting, and foreign policy at Penn forum

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks Thursday at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches diplomacy and global engagement. (Angela Gervasi/for WHYY)

Joe Biden left the White House well over a year ago, but the former vice president isn’t holding back on political commentary.

And he’s not afraid to accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of not having a soul, to the amusement of a few hundred college students.

Biden sat down with University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann Thursday afternoon to discuss everything from cancer research, to foreign policy, to gun-control laws.

He predicted that March for Our Lives — the movement spearheaded by children after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting — would continue growing.

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“The nation as a whole has decided it can no longer, in my view, continue to turn a blind eye to the prostitution of the Second Amendment here,” Biden said.

The damage, he added, is happening “not just in our schools, but on our streets, right here in Philly and Wilmington, Delaware, where I’m from, every night,” Biden said, as applause rang out through the sold-out Irvine Auditorium.

Biden, who pushed gun-control legislation throughout his vice presidency, said a number of parents who’ve lost children to gun violence have his private phone number.

“I know what it’s like to lose a child,” he added, referring to the deaths of a daughter in 1972 and son in 2015.

While he applauded the influence of young people, he said he has had one big problem with the millennials who filled the auditorium.

“You’re the most generous, you’re the least prejudiced, by every measure, except one thing. You really are lousy in terms of participating in politics,” Biden said as laughter crept through the room.

“No. You really are.”

A packed schedule

Last year, Biden began teaching diplomacy and foreign policy at the University of Pennsylvania, just weeks after his career at the White House ended.

As the Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor, Biden teaches Penn students in Washington, D.C., within eyeshot of the Capitol building.

Although the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement is hours away from Penn’s Philadelphia campus, Biden’s ties to the university are strong.

His eldest son, Beau Biden, graduated from Penn in 1991. Months after Beau Biden’s death in 2015 — following a long battle with brain cancer — Biden began partnering with Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. Cancer Moonshot, a government-funded research initiative that explores cancer therapies, has become Biden’s passion.

“I used to have an irreverent uncle who was a brilliant guy, well-educated, and he’d say, ‘Don’t ever try to pound 10 pounds of sand in a 5-pound bag.’ Well, I kind of did by taking on the responsibility here at Penn,” Biden said.

He’s even received offers to use Watson, an information-stuffed computer system, for cancer research.

“Every second counts,” he said. “And there’s a lot of things [that] can be done. If we didn’t find one more breakthrough, we just continued the collaboration that’s just now beginning, we can expand life for cancer patients significantly.”

While there was no mention of a 2020 presidential campaign, Biden didn’t hesitate to reminisce over his days in the White House with the former president.

“And I want to make one thing clear,” he said, “Barack made the first friendship bracelet, not me.”

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