WASHINGTON Six months after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., and with no major gun legislation on the horizon in Congress, the White House is quietly moving forward on an executive package of gun safety measures.
The package, which includes 23 executive actions announced by President Barack Obama earlier this year, is intended to bolster the nation's database used for background checks and to make it harder for criminals and people with mental illnesses to get guns.
Among other things, the executive orders relax health care privacy regulations that some state executives say prevent them from putting the names of those Americans with mental health records into the database. The orders also give states more money to help them add data to the system and compel federal agencies to share more mental health data on workers.
The goal is to add thousands of people to the database those with a history of mental illness, for example who would not legally be allowed to buy a gun under current law.
Gun control groups said that they admired the efforts but that they would never carry the weight of legislation to expand the number of gun buyers who are subjected to the background check system.
"Everything they have done helps," said Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "They are important and significant and will make a big difference, but the biggest reduction in gun violence will come when every American gets a background check."
This week, families from Newtown visited Capitol Hill to press for legislation, while B. Todd Jones, Obama's choice to head the embattled Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, endured a testy nomination hearing.
"We've only just finished round one in our fight to get Congress to pass common-sense measures to save lives, and we will continue to join 90 percent of Americans in calling on them to close loopholes in the background check system," Denis McDonough, Obama's White House chief of staff, said Wednesday in an email. "But in the meantime, we are doing everything in our power without them including strengthening the existing background check system."
The administration's progress enrages some Republicans and the National Rifle Association, which has aggressively fought any changes.
"The reason President Obama is using executive actions is to circumvent the will of the people and to bypass congressional oversight," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the group.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS, is a database made up of law enforcement, mental health and other records maintained by the FBI to screen out prohibited firearms purchasers, including people with a record of felonies, those with active domestic violence protection orders lodged against them, or those who have been involuntarily committed. The database contains more than 10 million active records, but states have been lax in some cases about uploading records to the system, particularly ones related to mental health.
Without an act of Congress, the administration is unable to significantly expand the number of gun buyers who are subject to background checks, nor curb certain types of weapons and clips, both central to Obama's gun agenda. Those efforts failed last April on the Senate floor and have yet to be revived.
The executive orders also direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin research into gun violence, which administration officials and gun control groups say will help make the case for new gun safety regulations.
Gun control groups say that the administration's actions are the closest thing they have to rolling back two decades of an expansion in gun rights both in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill.