By David Ingram
WASHINGTON, Jan 30 (Reuters) - A dispute erupted at a U.S.
congressional hearing on Wednesday over which existing
gun-control laws were worth enforcing, even as lawmakers debated
whether to pass new ones.
The flashes of anger underscored the deep divisions in
America's gun culture.
"You do not support background checks for all buyers of
firearms?" Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont asked the
head of the National Rifle Association, the largest U.S. gun
NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre said he did not support
checking all buyers when President Barack Obama's administration
was failing to enforce existing gun laws that, for example,
prohibit lying on a background-check form.
"This administration is not prosecuting the people that they
catch," LaPierre fired back during a hearing of the Senate
Judiciary Committee, where Leahy, the chairman, began what
promises to be a long congressional fight over gun control.
Obama proposed tougher guidelines after 20-year-old gunman
Adam Lanza killed his mother and then six adults and 20 students
at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school last month before
turning a gun on himself.
Obama's Justice Department has shown little appetite to
prosecute what it considers low-level firearms crimes at the
expense of time spent on sweeping investigations, officials with
the department said.
Investigators are also working under the shadow of a botched
gun probe known as "Operation Fast and Furious," an
investigation into gun trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border
that developed into a political scandal in Obama's first term.
Thousands of potential federal gun crimes go unprosecuted
each year, the result of efforts by the Justice Department and
the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or
ATF, to determine which ones are most important, according to
studies funded by the department.
The most common lead that agents pass up is a "paperwork"
In those instances, someone with a criminal conviction or
other disqualifying factor tries to buy a gun but does not
disclose his past, either because he lied or forgot to do so. A
background check finds him ineligible and bars him from getting
a firearm, but he can be prosecuted for trying.
Some of those attempted buyers are otherwise law-abiding
citizens who should not be a priority, said Michael Bouchard, a
former ATF assistant director for field operations.
"It's simply a matter of using your resources wisely to
effectively combat violent crime," he said in an interview. "To
combat violent crime, they're going to go after criminals who
are already in possession of guns or are using guns, rather than
people who didn't get a gun."
The FBI said it conducted 16.5 million background checks for
gun purchases in 2011. Of those, 78,211 ended in denials of
eligibility because of a past conviction, a warrant for an
arrest, drug abuse or other reason. Forty-four attempted buyers
faced prosecution in 2010.
Federal prosecutors said they brought gun charges against
11,811 people in 2011, down 10 percent from their peak in 2005
when violent crime rates were higher and President George W.
Bush's administration put more of an emphasis on certain gun
The National Rifle Association has repeatedly cited the drop
in prosecutions as it pushes back against proposed new laws. At
Wednesday's hearing, Republicans picked up on the theme.
"I hope we'll have a hearing where we'll ask administration
witnesses to come before the panel and to testify why the
Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies of the
federal government are not enforcing the laws that Congress has
already passed," said Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
Obama administration officials argue that not all gun
offenses are worthy of the same attention.
Government investigators have "focused greater efforts on
complex firearms investigations over the past several years in
an effort to have the greatest impact on violent gun crime,"
said a Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of
"While this may have resulted in fewer multiple-defendant
cases, it has been beneficial for our overall public safety
efforts," the official said.
Obama's own set of proposals on Jan. 16 underscored the
sensitivity surrounding what gun crimes get prosecuted. Rather
than ordering the 94 U.S. Attorney's Offices to devote more
resources to the subject, he simply asked those offices "to
consider whether supplemental efforts would be appropriate in
Obama's proposals to curb gun violence include reinstating
the U.S. ban on some semi-automatic rifles, limiting the
capacity of ammunition magazines, and more extensive background
checks of prospective gun buyers, largely to verify whether they
have a history of crime or mental illness.
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