White House strengthens background checks

Today, as NBC News' Carrie Dann reported, officials went a little further, proposing new measures intended to "prevent individuals who are prohibited from having a gun for mental health reasons from obtaining a firearm."

The Department of Justice, arguing that current federal law contains terminology about mental health issues that is too vague, proposed a regulation that would clarify who is ineligible to possess a firearm for specific situations related to mental health, like commitment to a mental institution. "In addition to providing general guidance on federal law, these clarifications will help states determine what information should be made accessible to the federal background check system, which will, in turn, strengthen the system's reliability and effectiveness," the administration said in a fact sheet distributed to reporters. The second executive action, proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services, would allow some medical organizations more leeway to report "limited information necessary to help keep guns out of potentially dangerous hands" to the federal background check system. "The proposed rule will not change the fact that seeking help for mental health problems or getting treatment does not make someone legally prohibited from having a firearm," the White House added.

Prominent supporters of gun reforms welcomed the policies, with Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence Executive Director Josh Horwitz saying in a statement, "The action to ensure patient privacy while also clarifying that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is not a barrier to the states putting adjudications related to federal mental health disqualifiers into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System will go a long way to increasing public safety."
For its part, Vice President Biden's office, which made the official announcement, added on Twitter, "Today, we are taking steps to further strengthen the federal background check system. It's time Congress joins us in this effort."
Indeed, it's worth noting that the White House's fact sheet fleshes out some of the details of the new executive actions, but it too concludes with a call for congressional action.

While the President and the Vice President continue to do everything they can to reduce gun violence, Congress must also act. Passing common-sense gun safety legislation -- including expanding background checks and making gun trafficking a federal crime -- remains the most important step we can take to reduce gun violence. The vast majority of Americans support these critical measures, which would protect our children and our communities without infringing on anyone's Second Amendment rights. In addition, the President's FY 2014 Budget proposes a new $130 million initiative to address several barriers that may prevent people -- especially youth and young adults -- from getting help for mental health problems. The President and the Vice President continue to call on Congress to appropriate funds for these important purposes.

About a year ago, it was quite common for proponents of gun reforms to wonder aloud whether Obama and his team would follow through on this issue, sticking with it after the horrors from Newtown faded from front pages. It appears those questions have been answered.