By Jordy Yager and Mike Lillis - 03/22/13 04:24 PM EDT
The Obama administration announced plans on Friday for more than $20 million in grants aimed at strengthening the national gun background check system.
The move is part of the president’s 23 proposals to bolster the country’s gun control laws, and comes as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised to bring a bill to the floor that would expand gun background checks.
“As part of President Obama’s comprehensive plan to reduce gun violence, the administration is committed to enhancing and strengthening the national criminal record system in support of stronger firearm background checks,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
“The Department of Justice intends to take immediate and effective action to work with states to fill gaps in information currently available to the NICS system,” he said.
The grants will attempt to improve the access of states and their ability to report key mental health information into the database, such as involuntary commitments to mental health facilities. It will also be used to try and increase the reporting of domestic violence records and outstanding felony and misdemeanor warrants from state officials, according to DOJ.
States will be encouraged to use the money to strengthen their electronic fingerprinting submission systems linked to federal systems as well, which include arrest histories.
In January, following the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 children and six adults, Obama announced plans to tighten the country’s gun control laws through administrative actions while directing Congress to take up legislation on an assault weapons ban, a magazine size limit and a universal background check requirement, among others.
The administration holds that states do not submit complete mental health and criminal history information into NICS, making it possible for people with violent or psychologically unstable histories to legally purchase firearms. The man convicted of shooting former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had a history of mental illness. Six bystanders were killed — including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl — and 13 others were injured, including Giffords.
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.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C), who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has suggested there are compelling reasons for Congress to try to make state reporting mandatory. There are state sovereignty concerns to be wary of, but Graham has suggested those could be overcome for the sake of public safety.
Still, there are real questions whether the federal government has the authority to compel states to share those records. And even gun control advocates concede that, while Congress can provide financial incentives — both payments and penalties — to encourage NICS reporting, a federal mandate would likely prove unconstitutional.Democrats have received opposition from Republicans in their attempt to require all gun buyers to pass a background check screening before purchasing a firearm. Though they support strengthening mental health and criminal history reporting requirements, Republicans are concerned that such a mandatory check on all gun sales would create a federal registry or database of every gun owner in the country, which would infringe on their privacy rights.
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.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying before the House this week, told lawmakers that the number of requested background checks through NICS has increased from about 54,000 a day, to a current level of about 81,000 each day. Mueller said he has had to shift about 200 FBI employees to the NICS division to handle the increase in background check requests.