Gun reformers press Obama for action

Some of the country's most prominent gun reformers are urging President Obama to promote stricter firearm rules in tonight's national address.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns — a group headed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino – called on Obama this week to use the State of the Union speech to press Congress for tighter background checks on potential weapons buyers.

"Last year, 12,000 Americans were murdered with guns," Bloomberg and Menino wrote Monday in a letter to Obama. "But the grim fact that guns are used to murder 34 people a day is barely discussed in Washington — even though the tragic reality is that many of those lives could have been saved if the federal government had fixed its broken background check system."

The gun-reform push carries special resonance surrounding this year's State of the Union, as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — an Arizona Democrat who survived an assassination attempt last year — is expected to attend.

Giffords was hosting a "Congress on Your Corner" event at a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store last January when a gunman on a rampage shot her in the head. Six bystanders were killed — including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl — and 13 others were injured, including Giffords.

The Arizona Democrat has staged a miraculous recovery, even voting in August on the debt-limit agreement. But over the weekend she announced that she'll step down from Congress this week to focus on her rehabilitation.

Bloomberg and Menino said Obama should "take the opportunity to address her departure, and the causes of it."

At issue is the effectiveness of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an FBI-run database created by Congress in 1993.

Under current law, licensed gun dealers are required to run potential weapons buyers through NICS to screen out felons, illegal immigrants, spousal abusers, the severely mentally ill, or another category that would bar them from buying or owning weapons. The system, however, is largely voluntary: states are encouraged — but not required — to report information to NICS.

The holes in NICS were revealed in 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old Virginia Tech student, killed 32 students and teachers in one of the deadliest shooting rampages in the nation's history. A judge had declared Cho mentally ill two years earlier, but the state did not report its evaluation to NICS, allowing Cho to pass a background check by a licensed gun dealer.

Following the Virginia Tech tragedy, Congress unanimously passed legislation providing states with financial incentives to report records of mental illness — along with other red-flag cases — to the FBI. Former President George W. Bush signed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act into law in early 2008, but reporting by states remains voluntary.

Gun reformers say a tougher screening system could have helped Giffords and the other victims of the Tucson shooting, as the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, had been expelled from community college for disturbing behavior and denied entrance to the military for a history of drug abuse. Still, he was able to buy a firearm and high-capacity ammunition magazines from local, licensed gun dealers.

The Giffords shooting inspired a flurry of Democratic gun reform proposals on Capitol Hill. But politically, the issue has been a third rail in Washington in recent years, as the powerful gun lobby has opposed almost every reform proposal to come along — a dynamic that hasn't been lost on Washington lawmakers.

Indeed, in last year's State of the Union address, Obama invoked Giffords’s spirit but made no mention of gun reform — a silence that irritated gun-control advocates on and off Capitol Hill.

This year, those advocates are hoping the president has a change of heart.

"Our country needs your leadership — and we urge you not to let this issue fall victim to election-year politics," Bloomberg and Menino wrote. "It is too important."