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White House pushes gun safety, but it means little without Congress

June 18, 2013|By Christi Parsons and Melanie Mason
  • People calling for stricter gun laws hold signs during their weekly protest outside the White House. The Obama administration says it is doing what it can to improve gun safety but that measures won't be effective without action by Congress.
People calling for stricter gun laws hold signs during their weekly protest… (Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON -- The White House plans to announce Tuesday that it has improved gun safety in the country by chipping away at 21 of 23 items on an executive to-do list issued in January.

But the progress report will also highlight steps that Congress has not taken, as some of the most significant measures ordered by President Obama will have little effect if lawmakers don’t act to give funding or approval.

Administration officials say there has been progress on several actions taken by Obama under executive authority, including directives to end the freeze on gun violence research and to reduce barriers that keep states from submitting records to the national background system.

They acknowledged, though, that the end to the 17-year ban on research will make little difference until Congress restores funding for the work. In addition, a more thorough database of mental health and criminal history records is valuable only if gun sellers check that database before selling firearms.

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“The administration has more work to do,” said one White House official, who talked to reporters Monday on the condition of anonymity, “but Congress must also do its job.”

Getting lawmakers on board for gun proposals has proved to be no easy task. The Senate in April failed to muster the 60 votes needed to pass a measure that, among other things, would have expanded the requirement on sellers to run background checks before selling guns at gun shows and over the Internet.

Talks have dragged along listlessly in the weeks since. To jump-start the conversation, Vice President Joe Biden plans to speak Tuesday at a White House event focused on the administration’s efforts to do what it can without help from Congress.

On Monday, administration officials argued that the items checked off the to-do list so far have real-world effect. Still, advisors to Obama and Biden suggested the real responsibility is now on Capitol Hill.

These unilateral acts, said the official, “are in no way a replacement for concrete legislative action.”

Some of the administrative actions remain works in progress, such as the president’s direction to the attorney general to review the categories of individuals who are prohibited from owning firearms.

The White House says the Justice Department has consulted with a number of experts in reviewing the laws that determine those categories and that the attorney general will issue his recommendations on strengthening those laws “in the coming weeks.”

On the list of items left undone is a plan to finalize regulations requiring health plans that offer mental health coverage to do so at the same level that they provide medical and surgical benefits.

Also, the administration has nominated a director to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a personnel move they say will give the agency the full strength to do its job. The nomination of B. Todd Jones is in limbo pending confirmation by the Senate.

Twitter: @cparsons

Twitter: @melmason

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