The Obama administration on Friday announced a new set of actions designed to keep weapons from the mentally ill, declaring once again that the president is intent on using his executive authority to pursue tighter federal gun control in lieu of congressional action.
The plan includes two proposed regulations. The first would clarify who may possess guns, while the second seeks to shore up a porous national background check system.
In the aftermath of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Obama announced plans to move forward with nearly two dozen initiatives meant to cub gun violence.
The effort, which included efforts to bolster access to treatment for the mentally ill, was meant to compliment a flurry of gun control legislation, including measures seeking universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.
All of the bills stalled in the face of fierce opposition from gun rights groups. And while the White House claimed progress toward improving gun safety through executive action, top administration officials conceded they remained far short of their goals.
The measures announced Friday include a new effort to strengthen the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
Gun dealers are required to use the system to screen for felons, drug abusers, the severely mentally ill or others who are prohibited from owning firearms. But the database is woefully incomplete.
The Justice Department is moving forward with draft regulations intended to clarify what information must be submitted by states to the NICS system. For instance, the proposed rule would make clear that the term “committed to a mental institution” includes involuntary inpatient as well as outpatient commitments.
“This step will provide clear guidance on who is prohibited from possessing firearms under federal law for reasons related to mental health," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a written statement.
Separately, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is moving forward with regulations to remove perceived legal barriers that have kept some states from sharing information with the NICS database.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting spree, some states said they are prohibited form making some relevant information available to the system by privacy provisions in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
HHS is proposing new regulations that would give any entity subject to HIPAA express permission to submit to NICS “limited information necessary to help keep guns out of potentially dangerous hands.”
That rule would not necessarily prohibit people who are seeking mental health treatment from having a gun.
“Furthermore, nothing in the proposed rule would require reporting on general mental health visits or other routine mental health care, or would exempt providers solely performing these treatment services from existing privacy rules,” the White House insisted.
In announcing the proposed regulations, the White House renewed its call upon Congress to move forward with legislation to accomplish goals beyond the reach of the president’s executive power.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) echoed the sentiment, praising Obama’s actions and urging passage of legislation to establish universal background checks for all gun sales, impose a ban on assault weapons and make gun trafficking a federal crime.
“In the wake of too many recent mass shootings involving perpetrators with mental health problems, we need to redouble our efforts this year to enact commonsense gun safety laws,” Markey said.