A Move to Better Enforce Gun Restrictions

Last Wednesday, Attorney General William Barr announced a new Justice Department initiative aiming to better enforce gun background checks, coordinate local, state and federal gun cases and ensure the updating of crucial mental health databases.

The very next day, a tragic exclamation point was added to the plan to address easy gun availability, when a teenage shooter opened fire at a high school in Santa Clarita, California, killing two students and wounding three others,

Mr. Barr announced the initiative, Project Guardian, in Memphis, Tennessee, alongside officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (known in short as the ATF). That same day, public impeachment hearings against President Trump began in Washington.

As it happens, in fact, back in September, the nascent impeachment effort pushed an even more ambitious set of legislative gun control proposals Mr. Barr had put forth off the administration’s front burner, indeed off the stovetop altogether.

At that time, after mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, left more than 30 people dead, considerable attention was being given by legislators to the issue of gun availability.

That led President Trump to convene discussions with lawmakers from both parties, and he subsequently directed the Justice Department to prepare potential policy suggestions. But the proposals then presented by Mr. Barr met with opposition from conservatives and the National Rifle Association, and no action was taken.

On Wednesday, the Attorney General declared the legislative effort dead, but touted Project Guardian, elements of which were among the ideas floated in September, as an important step toward getting illegal guns off American streets.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “our discussions on the legislative aspects of this have been sidetracked because of the impeachment process on the Hill, and so we are going forward with all the operational steps that we can take that do not require legislative action.”

Project Guardian will enhance coordination between federal law enforcement and local law enforcement agencies to identify gun crime offenders like gun traffickers and violent gang members, who could be charged for federal crimes, which generally carry more severe consequences for those convicted.

The initiative further requires ATF agents across the country to review and, if necessary, tighten protocols for bringing federal charges against people who lie in order to obtain a gun from a firearms dealer.

The program will also strengthen the federal background check system, with a special focus on people who are rejected for mental health reasons. Mr. Barr noted that each year, histories of mental illness lead to the rejection of thousands of gun purchase applications. Following the new initiative’s guidelines, federal authorities will consult with local law enforcement and mental health professionals to expeditiously update federal databases and help ensure that no mandated restrictions fall through the cracks.

Lapses in the federal background system have been blamed for some mass shooters having obtained guns when they should have been barred from doing so.

The Second Amendment, famously, enshrined an American right to bear arms. The 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller challenged the constitutionality of a 32-year-old handgun ban in Washington, D.C., and found that “The handgun ban… violate[s] the Second Amendment.”

That High Court ruling changed a nearly 70-year precedent set by an earlier case that saw the right to bear arms as connected, and essentially limited, to the “well regulated militia” referenced in the text of the Second Amendment — a right of states to defend themselves. The Heller case focused on the “individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia” and affirmed that such a right inheres in the amendment.

But it did not nullify gun control provisions that prevent certain citizens from having access to guns. “The Court’s opinion,” the ruling noted, “should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Gun control, even regarding laws like those referenced in the Court’s note, remains a perennial and contentious issue in our country. Efforts to ratchet up legal restrictions on gun ownership or to expand existing laws have been blocked by gun rights advocates and legislators in their camp.

And so, in recognition of the fact that sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good, limited non-legislative measures like Project Guardian, aimed at shoring up existing legal restrictions on gun ownership, should be welcomed, even if more comprehensive ones might do a better job of undermining the suicides, gang violence and mass murders that have come to plague our nation.