Florida’s two U.S. senators announced a new bipartisan bill Monday to add teeth to the gun background check system by notifying local authorities in cases where someone lies to try to buy a gun illegally.
Attempting to buy a gun while on the banned buyer list is a crime, though the federal government hardly ever prosecutes — and in many cases never informs states that an attempt was made, denying them the chance to do their own investigation or prosecution.
The new bill would require states to be notified of all “lie-and-try” attempts.
It would also require the Justice Department to report on its own prosecutions, giving the public a better sense for why federal authorities regularly decline to pursue charges.
“This would be a strong step forward in preventing future tragedies,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican.
He is being joined by fellow Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, along with Sens. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat, and Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican.
“We have to find ways to work across the aisle to reduce gun violence,” said Mr. Coons.
Their legislation has the backing of senators from a wide range of the ideological spectrum. It joins another bill sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, a Republican and a Democrat respectively, as bipartisan plans that could be the basis for any compromise that emerges from Congress.
Both the new bill and the Cornyn-Murphy legislation are designed to fix problems with operations of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
The Cornyn-Murphy bill would push federal agencies to make sure the NICS has all appropriate records about prohibited buyers.
Meanwhile, the new bill announced Monday by the Florida senators and others goes to the heart of federal gun laws: the lack of follow-up prosecutions when people break the law.
Those with felony records, domestic violence convictions or restraining orders, illegal immigrants, the adjudicated mentally ill, fugitives and several other categories of people are prohibited from buying weapons, and the attempt alone can be criminal.
But of more than 600,000 NICS denials from 2008 through 2015, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) referred just 558 subjects to federal prosecutors, and of those just 254 cases were taken to court, according to a 2016 inspector general’s report.
Auditors said that was “extremely low.”
They said prosecutors usually demanded some serious additional facts to be present before they would take a case, such as someone who had a series of domestic violence incidents or were firearms traffickers.
In one specific instance, prosecutors said they would pursue a case against someone whose son died during an accidental discharge, then dropped the case after concluding the defendant would be too sympathetic after losing a child.
The Obama administration, in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, promised to bring more gun cases, but the 2016 inspector general report said it detected no substantive changes in NICS prosecutions.
The new legislation announced Monday would require regular reporting on why federal prosecutors refuse to bring cases.
It would also alert states. Some 13 states that run their own background checks know the outcomes of denied purchases but the other states that rely on the federal government to conduct the checks do not get notifications.
Democratic leaders said that while fixing NICS operations is worthy, that can’t be the only changes Congress makes following last month’s Parkland, Florida, high school shooting.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said lawmakers must also debate imposing “universal” background checks, banning purchase of some semiautomatic rifles, and confiscation of firearms from those who appear to be a danger to themselves and others.
Mr. Schumer challenged President Trump to show leadership.
Mr. Trump had been expected to release a gun proposal last week but that was delayed. The White House on Monday said he’s mentioned a number of options he’s considering, but didn’t give a new timetable for his own proposal.
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