How to tackle gun violence: 5 things liberal groups want

As Vice President Biden has prepared his recommendations on alleviating US gun violence, he has talked to several interested parties. Here is what key liberal advocates are seeking.

Susan Walsh/AP
Vice President Joe Biden (c.) speaks during a meeting with representatives from the video game industry in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, last week.

Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled Tuesday to give his recommendations to President Obama on how to help alleviate gun violence in the United States.

While Mr. Obama promised at his press conference on Monday to present the details of Mr. Biden’s recommendations later this week, here are the top five proposals from liberal interest groups (The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Center for American Progress) and lawmakers closely aligned with the White House that shed light on what the Obama administration may push for at the outset of his second term.

1. Universal background checks

This first proposal is one that Democrats believe has widespread support, even among Republican lawmakers: If you buy a gun, no matter who it’s from, you have to pass a background check.

Currently, private sellers make up about 40 percent of weapon transfers in the US every year. What’s known in some places as the “gun show loophole” means that those barred from buying guns by other statutes can effectively circumvent those laws by obtaining a weapon from a private weapons dealer.

“When you’ve got 40 percent of the guns that are going out [not receiving background checks], that’s not a loophole. That’s an exception,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, said at an event Monday at the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP). “Shutting that exemption... is essential.”

This recommendation requires strong legislative language to require states to contribute information toward national databases used for assessing whether an individual should be allowed to purchase a weapon. At present, 10 states have submitted a grand total of zero names to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and 18 other states have submitted fewer than 100, according to CAP.

2. Restrict the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines

 If background checks enjoy the most consensus, what to do about restricting access to assault weapons is perhaps the most controversial.

The Brady Campaign, one of the most outspoken advocates for increased gun control, gives only a single broad sentence to the subject in its policy recommendations: “Limit the availability of military-style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines that are designed for mass killing.”

But others have been a bit more specific at reviving a policy created under President Bill Clinton but allowed to lapse under President George W. Bush.

CAP endorsed a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California that would halt the “sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeding devices.” In other words, it would freeze ownership of weapons like that used in the Newtown, Conn., massacre at its current level. Feinstein and other Democratic Senators plan to introduce legislation to this effect early in the new session of Congress.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut told reporters on Monday that she was introducing legislation to offer a $1,000, refundable tax credit for each of the next two years to encourage owners of assault weapons to turn them in to local authorities.

But reducing access to guns of any kind raises the hackles of conservative groups like the National Rifle Association, whose head vowed over the weekend that liberals simply don’t have the votes for such an assault weapons restriction.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, a freshman, told PBS’ Judy Woodruff that he would fight any such legislation.

“I intend to help lead the fight to stop Senator Dianne Feinstein's bill to pass aggressive gun control,” Senator Cruz said last week. “It's misguided policy. If you look at the jurisdictions with the strictest gun control laws, almost without exception, they have the highest crime rates and the highest murder rates. If you look at the jurisdictions that most vigorously protect our right to keep and bear arms, almost without exception, they have the lowest crime rates and the lowest murder rates.”

3. Get better gun data

In addition to making sure dangerous or violent Americans can’t get their hands on weapons, and potentially limiting access to assault weapons, the next most frequent complaint is about a simple thing: information.

Liberal lawmakers say the gun lobby’s innate fear of the federal government collecting data about guns or gun users manifests itself in restrictions on research into weapons and their impact on society.

Among the restrictions Democrats would like to strike down are limits on the use of so-called “trace data,” which show the initial sale of a weapon, and requirements that federal agencies destroy completed background checks within a day, saying the checks would allow authorities to pinpoint “straw purchasers” who help criminals circumvent gun laws.

Democrats would also like to allow the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health free reign to study public health and safety issues relating to firearms.

Regarding the CDC and NIH, there is “nothing legally that says you can’t collect this data, but [fear of losing funding] has over these years had a very chilling effect” on investigation of the subject, said Representative DeLauro said. “These agencies are limited in the funding that they receive, so if they’re going to be engaged in something that’s controversial that’s [potentially] going to lead to precluding resources and funds that they may have, they may not want to move in that direction.”

4. Put ATF under jurisdiction of the FBI

Perhaps the structure of government is impeding the ability of federal agents to pursue violent criminals and gun crimes. CAP proposes moving the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) – which has gone without a permanent head for over two years as Republicans and the NRA criticize the potential director as insufficiently pro-gun – under the FBI.

“For reasons such as lack of funding, limitations on its activities including in appropriations riders, and a leadership vacuum,” CAP’s recommendations read, “the bureau is simply incapable of functioning properly as a standalone agency in its current state.”

Many groups have pointed out that the ATF has been prevented from creating a digital database of gun records, which gun advocates have decried as a breach of privacy and a stepping stone toward the confiscation of guns. Instead, the bureau makes due with an antiquated paper system.

5. Emphasize prosecutions of gun violations

Liberals want gun violations to be a serious enforcement priority for federal prosecutors around the country and advocate elevating gun trafficking to a federal crime.

“The absence of any federal law defining gun trafficking in this country is shocking,” wrote Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York in a recent op-ed about her legislation that would raise gun trafficking to the level of federal prosecution. “We have thousands of laws, but effectively none of them are directly focused on preventing someone from Virginia from driving to New York City, parking their car in a parking lot, and selling hundreds of firearms out of the back of their trunk to criminals.”

Such legislation would impose harsher penalties on not only the recipients of trafficked weapons but on buyers and gun dealers who don’t comply with federal laws. Without legislation, however, liberals believe that instructing district attorneys to emphasize gun prosecutions would help prevent violence in the future.

6. What isn’t included?

What’s yet to be seen are concrete proposals from the two liberal groups on two frequently mentioned areas of concern: how to improve access to mental health care or deal with what those on both the left and right agree is a dangerous cultural fascination with violence as exemplified by violent movies and videogames. As part of his assignment to draw up recommendations on gun violence, Biden convened meetings with both health professionals and members of the entertainment industry.

CAP offered no proposals to address either issue. The Brady Campaign only submitted a single broad thought on the matter: “We should provide legal mechanisms to prevent those dangerously mentally ill who present the most significant risk from possessing guns, while carefully protecting the rights of those who are mentally ill but do not pose a risk.”

DeLauro said that the mental health component had a simple solution: money.

Without funding for state or national efforts to provide greater access to mental health-care, DeLauro said, all the talk will be just that – talk.

“It has been a struggle every single year to increase the funding,” for federal agencies overseeing mental health, said DeLauro, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee, which oversees such spending. “If you’re not going to provide the resources ... you can say that we’re going to focus in these areas, but without the resources it is hollow.”

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