The Justice Department announced Wednesday a new initiative aimed at combatting gun violence that emphasizes stepping up gun-related prosecutions, cracking down on banned buyers and strengthening federal record-sharing.
The department said the initiative would emphasize prohibiting access to guns by people who have past domestic violence-related convictions or mental health issues that would land them on the federal list of banned buyers.
“Gun crime remains a pervasive problem in too many communities across America,” Attorney General William P. Barr said.
The Trump administration and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been searching for ways to respond to recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, especially since the alleged gunman in El Paso was able to get a gun despite a prior mental health issue.
The plan Mr. Barr announced, called Project Guardian, puts an emphasis on stepping up enforcement of existing laws on banned buyers and sharing more records in the National Instant Background Check System (NICS), rather than enacting new laws or expanding gun sales covered by federal gun-purchase background checks.
The Justice Department rolled out the plan on the same day that the House held its first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
The plan calls for federal prosecutors and law enforcement to coordinate with state and local authorities to consider prosecutions in new cases in which a defendant could have used a firearm to commit a violent crime or is suspected of committing violent crimes on behalf of a criminal organization.
It also calls on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to step up record-sharing of the list of people who have been flagged as banned buyers through NICS.
Under the plan, U.S. attorneys will create new guidelines or review existing ones for the prosecution of federal cases involving false statements, like when individuals who are barred from getting guns lie on federal transaction forms to try to get a firearm or attempt to use someone who can legally purchase guns as an intermediary.
The guidelines should emphasize people convicted of violent felonies or misdemeanor domestic violence, people suspected of involvement in organized crime and people involved in “repeat denials,” Mr. Barr said in a memo to U.S. attorneys dated Nov. 8.
For some time, the Trump administration has tried to place an emphasis on cracking down on so-called “lie and try” cases in which people falsify federal forms to evade the background check system.
Under the new plan, U.S. attorneys are supposed to provide timely information for NICS when there’s a federal case involving someone who is banned from having a firearm because of mental health reasons.
NICS denials based on mental health adjudications “should command the Department’s increased attention and scrutiny,” Mr. Barr said.
The man accused of killing 22 people and wounding more than 20 others at an El Paso Walmart in August was banned under federal law from purchasing a gun because of a mental health issue, but he still managed to get a gun through a private sale.
“I know you share my grave concern regarding the gun violence that has plagued our communities and that you are committed to preventing gun violence whenever possible,” Mr. Barr said in the memo.
Some of the initiatives Mr. Barr announced Wednesday mirror priorities in legislation lawmakers have introduced in Congress in the wake of the shootings.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, introduced a bill last month that would create national federal, state and local law enforcement task forces to crack down on gun purchasers and dealers who make false statements in the course of gun transactions.
“The task forces will focus on both those who are illegally selling firearms as well as those attempting to buy firearms who provide false statements as part of a background check,” Mr. Cornyn said.
Mr. Trump had signaled interest in doing something on background checks after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, and Democrats have pressed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up House-passed legislation that would expand the checks.
But conservatives revolted in September against a draft proposal from the Justice Department that would have expanded the kinds of sales subject to checks run through NICS, blunting potential momentum on the issue.
Attention on guns also has faded in Washington in recent weeks as lawmakers turn their attention to the ongoing impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, characterized the new plan as a mixed bag.
“It’s also a small bag,” said John Feinblatt, president of the group. “Overall it fails to meet the moment and ignores the public’s call for broadly popular measures like background checks on all gun sales and strong red flag legislation.”