Administration presses ahead on background checks after Senate defeat

The Obama administration is pressing ahead with new regulations to bolster the national criminal background check system, following the high-profile defeat of a gun control measure this week in the Senate. 

{mosads}The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) filed a notice Friday afternoon initiating a rulemaking process aimed at removing legal barriers that are keeping states from sharing records with the National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS).

The database is designed to keep guns out of the hands of felons, drug abusers, the severely mentally ill and others who are prohibited from owning firearms.

But it is woefully incomplete.

Many states have declined to release certain information to the system, citing restrictions under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) that prevent them from sharing medical records. The law was designed to protect the privacy of individual health records.

A 2012 Government Accountability Office report, for example, found that 17 states had submitted fewer than 10 records of individuals prohibited for mental health reasons.

“While this background check system is the most efficient and effective way to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals, it is only as effective as the information that is available to it,” the agency said in a statement announcing the new rule.

Through the rule-making notice, the administration is soliciting comment on how HIPAA is preventing states from sharing records and how the legal barriers could be removed “without discouraging individuals from seeking mental health services.”

In particular, the agency is considering enacting “an express permission in the HIPAA rules for reporting the relevant information to the NICS,” according to the notice. 

The agency stressed that when gun dealers run a name through the system, they are simply told whether the would-be buyer is approved or denied – or if additional investigation is needed. They are not privy to any personal health information.

The effort is one of 23 executive actions Obama announced after the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. It comes just 48 hours after a measure aimed at strengthening background checks fell short of Senate passage.

The defeat of the amendment crafted by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) was seen as a major setback for those pushing gun control legislation in Congress.

Following the vote, Obama vowed to act unilaterally on the issue, if necessary.

“Even without Congress, my administration will keep doing everything it can to protect more of our communities,” he said.

The action drew swif rebuke from an official with the National Association for Gun Rights, who critcized the president for circumventing the legislative process.

“It seems the White House wants to ignore the legislative process when it can’t get what it wants through both chambers,” said Dudley Brown, the group’s executive vice president. “Someone should inform the Congress that they are no longer needed.”

Megan Wilson contributed.

This story was updated with additional information at 4:48 p.m.

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