Not waiting for Congress to act, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is moving on gun control, submitting three measures Monday to increase data sharing and data collection on firearms and potential gun purchasers — and illustrating the limitations President Obama's administration has to act unilaterally on the issue.
The first of Mr. Holder's proposals would expand access to information on gun permits to Indian tribal law enforcement agencies; the second would allow local law enforcement to access the FBI's national criminal database to conduct background checks on people they're transferring weapons to; and the third would authorize the FBI to maintain records on denied firearms transactions in a separate database for longer than 10 years.
All three were published Monday in the Federal Register for comment.
"These proposed changes are intended to promote public safety, to enhance the efficiency of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) operations, and to resolve difficulties created by unforeseen processing conflicts within the system," Mr. Holder wrote.
Under the Brady Act of 1993, background checks are required for any gun transfer from a federal firearms licensee to any unlicensed person. But access to NICS for background checks unrelated to those outlined in the law currently is limited to providing information in connection with a firearm- or explosives-related license or responding to an inquiry from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said after a meeting Monday with Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Mr. Holder that such measures are important "low-hanging fruit" even thought they may not get the attention of more contentious proposals such as on so-called assault weapons or limits on high-capacity magazines.
"Let's get meaningful legislation on the books that's going to actually make a difference, even things like universal background checks, which may seem simple on the surface but are something that would be of help," he told CNN. "Knowing when a gun is lost or stolen or transferred to another owner — we lose an enormous amount of man hours just tracing a gun, only to find out it was lost or stolen, you know, five years ago or 10 years ago."
Mr. Obama has said he will take the steps that he can on gun violence unilaterally, but he won't be able to get major pieces of his package — an assault weapons ban, limits on high-capacity magazines, expanding background checks — without action from Congress. He signed three "presidential memoranda" when he rolled out his proposals earlier this month directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct research on gun violence; ensuring firearms recovered from crime scenes are traced; and directing Mr. Holder's Justice Department to outline guidance for federal agencies on submitting records to NICS.
But even Mr. Holder conceded that the impact of Monday's proposals are unknown at this point, in part because of the lack of data the government has about the kind of transfers the new rules would allow.
The public has 60 days to comment on the proposals.
Broader gun-control measures will undoubtedly be discussed Wednesday morning, when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds its first hearing this year on gun violence. Witnesses scheduled to appear include Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO of the National Rifle Association, a group that has vigorously opposed Mr. Obama's proposals.
Also appearing will be retired astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was gravely wounded during a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in January 2011; Nicholas Johnson, a law professor at Fordham University School of Law; James Johnson, chief of police for Baltimore County, Md.; and Gayle Trotter, a lawyer and senior fellow of the Independent Women's Forum.
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