Sessions calls on US attorneys to aggressively prosecute gun buyers who lie on background checks

OPED CALIF-SANCTUARY-EDITORIAL SJ
Attorney General Jeff Sessions at Port of Miami Terminal E, on August 16, 2017.

WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that U.S. attorneys will more aggressively enforce the law that makes it a crime for gun buyers to lie on their federal background checks, one of several steps Justice Department officials outlined as part of the Trump administration’s response to last month’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The Justice Department also will increase the presence of law enforcement officers at schools and continue to review the way law enforcement agencies respond to tips from the public, Sessions said.

“No child should have to fear going to school or walking the streets of their neighborhood,” Sessions said in a statement.

Lying on a federal background check when purchasing a firearm is a felony that can be punished by up to five years in prison, but the crime is rarely prosecuted, according to current and former Justice Department officials. Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to “swiftly and aggressively” prosecute cases against people who are prohibited from having firearms and lie on a federal form to pass the background check.

The announcement comes nearly a month after the massacre that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and as Trump’s administration rolls out policy proposals that focus largely on school safety and mental health rather than gun control. The White House announced Sunday that it would help provide firearms training to some schoolteachers and establish a Federal Commission on School Safety to be chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Neither the Justice Department initiatives nor Trump’s plan contain significant proposals to change gun laws. Instead, Sessions’ actions enhance existing programs and call for more aggressively enforcing current law. The White House has also backed away from Trump’s initial call to raise the minimum age to purchase some guns from 18 to 21 years old.

The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers lobby, along with other groups sharply oppose the idea of arming teachers. Many of the students who survived the Parkland shooting – along with gun control groups – have called for tighter restrictions on gun purchases. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said that Democrats will push for passing universal background checks, legislation on protection orders and a debate on banning assault-style weapons.

Such measures are opposed by the National Rifle Association, which endorsed Trump and spent an estimated $30 million to get him elected.

“Despite all the tough talk from the president, all the televised meetings where he talked about significant change, the [Trump] plan is a moral abomination that centers on buying teachers guns,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun control organization founded by Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who survived being shot in the head in 2011.

“The idea that you can turn schools into fortresses and protect them as to opposing the root cause is plain wrong,” Ambler said. “My mom spent most of her career as a public school teacher. And the idea of her groping a handgun or an AR-15 trying to stop someone massacring kids with an assault weapon is insane.”

Sessions said the Justice Department will help state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies hire more “school resource officers,” sworn law enforcement officers responsible for preventing crime and protecting schools. Using existing programs, the department will provide support for firearms and “situational awareness training” to school and law enforcement personnel, he said.

Sessions also has taken an incremental step toward banning “bump stocks,” the devices that allow a shooter to fire a semiautomatic firearm as though it was an automatic weapon. On Saturday, the attorney general submitted to the Office of Management and Budget a proposed regulation on bump stocks.

Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock attached a bump stock to his semiautomatic firearm and effectively turned it into a machine gun that left 58 people dead and hundreds more injured in a matter of minutes. After that incident, the NRA said that bump stocks “should be subject to additional regulations.”

The bump stock proposal requires OMB’s approval and public comments before they can be banned.

In 2010, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concluded that it could not regulate bump stocks because such devices did not meet the legal definition of a machine gun. But Sessions, recently speaking to a group of state attorneys general, said he believed the devices could be banned.

The effort is likely to face lawsuits from manufacturers who cite ATF’s original opinion from 2010.

Federal agencies are required by law to report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) the relevant records about individuals who are prohibited from possessing a gun under federal law.

Sessions is calling on the FBI and other relevant agencies to certify within 45 days that they are in compliance with that law or have a plan to become fully compliant.

There is no indication that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, the suspect in the Parkland shooting, would have been stopped by an improved background check system. He legally purchased his AR-15 and several other firearms.

But NICS has come under scrutiny after several other high-profile shootings.

Dylann Roof, who killed nine people three years ago at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, was able to buy his gun after errors by the FBI and local law enforcement led to his name not being entered into criminal-record databases when he was arrested and had admitted to drug possession.

The Air Force said it failed to follow policies for alerting the FBI about the domestic violence conviction of Devin P. Kelley, who killed more than two dozen churchgoers in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last year. Because his conviction was not entered into NICS, Kelley was allowed to buy firearms.

Tens of thousands of people wanted by law enforcement officials were removed last year from the FBI criminal background check database that prohibits fugitives from justice from buying guns. The FBI purged the names from the database after the Justice Department changed its legal interpretation of “fugitive from justice” to say it pertains only to wanted people who have crossed state lines. That meant fugitives previously prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms can buy them, unless barred for other reasons.