President Obama is quietly moving forward on gun control.
The president has used his executive powers to bolster the national background check system, jumpstart government research on the causes of gun violence and create a million-dollar ad campaign aimed at safe gun ownership.
The executive steps will give federal law enforcement officials access to more data about guns and their owners, help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, and lay the groundwork for future legislative efforts.
It is unclear whether the National Rifle Association will challenge any of the executive actions in court. A spokesman for the NRA did not return a request for comment.
The moves, which have not been widely touted by the administration, come as Obama ups his pressure on Congress to take action on gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. The Senate is expected to begin floor consideration of legislation when it returns in April.
Efforts to renew a ban in semi-automatic weapons with military-style features and high-capacity magazines have stalled in Congress. Democratic senators still hope to move gun control legislation that includes tougher background checks, but conservative Republican senators have threatened to filibuster it.
If approved by the Senate, any bill would then face tough sledding in the GOP-controlled House.
Gun control groups say Obama’s piecemeal approach falls short of what could be accomplished by legislation overhauling the nation’s gun laws. Still, they argue the actions remain important and will reduce gun violence.
“They’ve taken direct aim at some of the bigger problems in the regulatory part of the issue and they’re doing it in the right way and that’s going to be very helpful,” said Mark Glaze, the director of Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns group.
“Ultimately you need to close the loopholes in the law that will continue to undermine enforcement, but what they’re doing is precisely right.”
They also illustrate the administration’s power to change gun laws despite inaction on Capitol Hill, a practice the president may need to duplicate in other policy areas amid congressional gridlock.
Obama’s steps began the same day he unveiled his 23 gun control proposals in January, when he issued a memorandum requiring all nine federal law enforcement agencies to submit guns they confiscate to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) for tracing.
According to a notice sent by Attorney General Eric Holder last month, the agencies will have to submit a report to the Justice Department (DOJ) within the next month showing they are compliant.
The move, and several more like it, is aimed at strengthening the quality and quantity of records contained within the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), according to a DOJ spokeswoman.
For years, federal law enforcement officials and gun control advocates have complained that the NICS gun records are not complete, making it easier for people with criminal records and mental illnesses to buy guns.
A key factor in strengthening the NICS database, they say, is getting states to report more information on mental health and criminal history records.
Earlier this month, the DOJ announced a $20 million grant program aimed at incentivizing states to submit more mental health and criminal history information into the NICS database.
Also this month, the White House Office of Management and Budget said it would consider changing rules to make it easier for states to share mental health records with the NICS.
Through these moves, Glaze said the administration has addressed two of the main reasons for incomplete trace data: a lack of money and privacy concerns.
“By taking direct aim at the two biggest problems inhibiting the database they are taking a significant chunk out of 50 percent of the system’s weaknesses,” said Glaze.
In January, Obama directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to begin studying the causes of gun violence for the first time since Congress, at the behest of the NRA, began blocking funding for such research in 1996.
The CDC has since awarded a contract to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which this spring will soon begin looking at the role video games and social media play in gun violence, as well as whether gun technologies and access to guns can be used to reduce violence.
The aim is to affect future legislation by giving lawmakers empirical data on an area that has been largely bereft for nearly two decades. Without government research, gun control advocates say they are forced to rely on private studies, which do not hold the same clout on Capitol Hill.
“You can’t make good policy without good data and for a generation the NRA has been throwing dirt in the eyes of Congress so they can’t actually see what’s going on around them,” said Glaze.
As part of the agency’s preliminary research, the CDC and IOM on April 23 will host an all-day conference in Washington, D.C. to hear from firearm and gun violence experts, researchers, and advocates on both sides of the issue, according to Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who now leads the Independent Firearm Owners Association.
Feldman said he questions whether the CDC can lawfully spend money on studies that Congress has barred, but he plans to attend and noted that the NRA’s former research director, Paul Blackman, has been invited to the event as well.
In another administrative move, Obama directed the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to examine the efficacy of existing gun trigger locks and firearm safe standards to determine if they need to be improved. The CPSC has partnered with the American Society for Testing and Materials International but does not have a firm timeline for when it’s examination will be finished, according to a spokesman.
Separately, the administration has given $1 million to the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) to create, produce and distribute a nationwide multimedia ad campaign on safe gun ownership and storage. The campaign is heading into the research phase and is expected to air by the early fall, according to a NCPC spokeswoman.
And regional offices with the General Services Administration have begun to reach out to local schools, advising them about the agency’s “Cooperative Purchasing” program, which gives discounted rates to schools on security equipment including: surveillance cameras, emergency communication systems, security design and support, and employee background check systems.
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