Sen. Ted Cruz said Sunday that the government's background-check system for gun purchases is flawed and needs strengthening.
The Texas Republican, a strong backer of the National Rifle Association, said the Democrats' push for new gun restrictions is misguided, but he emphasized that there's plenty of room for Congress to make it tougher for those barred from owning guns from buying them.
"Are there things we can do? Sure. One of the things we could do is we could improve the quality of the federal database," Cruz said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday." "Right now a lot of states, a lot of local jurisdictions, are not reporting criminal convictions, not reporting mental health barriers to ownership. And so the federal database is not nearly as good as it should be. That would be a common-sense improvement."
A number of gun bills have already been introduced in the new Congress, most of them by Democrats hoping to put new restrictions on firearms and gun accessories. Cruz was quick to blast those efforts.
"Within minutes, we saw politicians run out and try to exploit this tragedy, try to push their political agenda of gun control," Cruz said, referring to the Newtown shooting. "I do not support their gun-control agenda."
Cruz's recommendation focuses on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an FBI database through which licensed gun dealers are required to screen potential buyers before making a sale. Under federal law, felons, illegal immigrants, spousal abusers and the severely mentally ill are barred from buying or owning firearms.
The system remains largely voluntary, however, as states are encouraged — but not required — to report such information. And the maximum penalty for states failing to report at least 50 percent of relevant records is a mere 3 percent cut in certain Justice Department grants designed to bolster law enforcement efforts.
Additionally, unlicensed gun sellers are able to skirt the requirement to conduct background checks entirely — an enormous hole in the screening process that allows most anyone to purchase firearms.
The voluntary nature of NICS has created vast reporting discrepancies between states. Virginia, for instance, has submitted more than 170,000 mental health records to the system, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group headed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Idaho, by contrast, has submitted none.
Federal funding for NICS reporting has also come under scrutiny, as Congress has appropriated far less than is authorized. In response, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations subcommittee, increased NICS funding this year to $12 million — up from $7 million in 2012.
For decades, gun reform has been a third rail of congressional politics, but the Newtown tragedy — in which 20 elementary-school kids were gunned down in their classrooms, as well as six adults — has changed those dynamics, with President Obama now actively calling for tougher gun laws for the first time in his White House tenure. Last month, Obama created a gun-violence task force headed by Vice President Biden, who is expected to propose a strategy this month.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Sunday that Republicans will examine whatever recommendations Biden comes up with, but he warned that Congress won't have time to have an in-depth debate on gun violence until fiscal matters like the debt ceiling and sequestration have been finalized.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) had other ideas.
"I disagree with Sen. McConnell," Murphy said on CBS's "Face the Nation" program. "We should get it done now, and if we did that it would save lives."
Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Congress should take a comprehensive approach, looking at the mental health system but also "sensible" gun reforms.
"The argument against gun-safety provisions is always, 'Because it doesn't solve everything, we shouldn't do anything.' And I don't subscribe to that," Van Hollen said. "Just because a particular effort won't prevent ... one particular incident, doesn't mean you shouldn't do anything that might help in other incidents."
The NRA remains a powerful force on Capitol Hill, however, and while the group supports more funding for NICS, it opposes practically any other barriers to gun ownership, including mandatory background checks on all gun sales. And most Republicans agree.
"More restrictions on law-abiding citizens [are] not going to prevent these kinds of tragedies. The Second Amendment is about freedom, and that's what we've got to focus on as we move forward," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said on "Fox News Sunday." "Bad guys aren't stupid, they're just bad. … If they're intent on doing something bad, they're going to find a way to get a firearm and use it."
In a heated exchange, Van Hollen challenged Jordan to join him in support of background checks for all gun purchases, not just those conducted by licensed dealers. Jordan declined.
"I support it for concealed carry," Jordan said.
"No, I'm talking about before you can go out and buy a semi-automatic weapon," Van Hollen said.
"You have to remember what the Second Amendment says," Jordan responded. "It's about freedom."
"So if you broke the law and committed a violent act you should be able to go out and buy a semi-automatic assault weapon?" Van Hollen asked.
"You shouldn't be able to get a concealed-carry permit, that's for sure," Jordan said.
The exchange caused Fox News host John Roberts to throw up his hands.
"I've got to call time on this," Roberts said. "But, as I say, if this discussion is any indication of what lies ahead, we'll have an interesting time."
"Oh, goodness," Van Hollen said, "it's going to be a problem."