For the first time since the Dec. 14 mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte said Friday that his chamber will take legislative action to curb gun violence.
“The Congress is going to act on this issue,” Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a telephone interview with CQ Roll Call. “The Senate is at work on it, and we are as well. Our goal is to do anything we can do keep firearms out of the hands of people who should not have them.”
At the same time, Goodlatte and every other Republican member of his committee sent letters Friday to President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., calling on the administration to provide 11 years’ worth of data on federal enforcement of existing gun laws. The letters warned that it is “imprudent” for Obama to call for new gun proposals without also assessing the enforcement of laws that are already on the books.
“Part of the decisionmaking process as to whether additional laws are necessary to combat future violence is whether the existing federal firearms laws are being enforced,” the letters said. “It is imprudent to simply call for more laws without examining the efficacy of the current laws.”
Goodlatte, in one of his first interviews about gun violence since taking over the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee in January, said the administration’s recent enforcement of gun laws has been “pathetic.” He noted that the Justice Department rarely prosecutes those who attempt to buy firearms illegally by lying on federal forms that ask prospective buyers to assert that they are not among a group of prohibited purchasers. He pointed to statistics, cited in the Judiciary Republicans’ letter to Obama, that the Justice Department prosecuted just 62 of more than 76,000 such cases in 2010.
But Goodlatte also said that the committee’s emphasis on stronger enforcement of current gun laws should not be interpreted to mean that it is not willing to take up new legislation. Until Friday, House Republican leaders had said only that their chamber is willing to look at whatever gun-related legislation is passed by the Democratic-led Senate.
Goodlatte himself, who has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, told CQ Roll Call four days after the Connecticut shooting that “gun control is not going to be something that I would support.” He struck a more conciliatory tone on Friday.
“I wouldn’t draw any conclusions about what we’ll do with gun laws,” Goodlatte said. “Our point is that as we look at legislation to prevent tragedies like Newtown and other crimes that occur with these guns, we should first be looking at what’s being done to enforce the laws that we have.”
He said Republicans are open to new gun laws, “but we do not want to write new laws that are not going to be enforced, number one, and we don’t want to write new laws that aren’t going to work, number two.”
Specific Proposals Identified
Goodlatte expressed openness to two legislative proposals in particular: a strengthening of the current background check system for gun purchases and a crackdown on gun traffickers, or “straw purchasers,” who illegally buy firearms for those who may not do so.
Under the current background check system, known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, state and federal agencies provide records of prohibited gun buyers to a national database that tells gun dealers whether transactions may proceed or not. The Government Accountability Office has found gaping holes in the system, including a lack of information-sharing by states, particularly when it comes to providing the records of mentally ill individuals who are barred from buying firearms.
“That law, NICS, is up for reauthorization at the end of this year anyway,” Goodlatte said. “We believe that the law can be improved, and there’s no question we will be working on ways to prevent criminals and people with serious mental illness from obtaining firearms, while at the same time protecting the right of law-abiding citizens to have firearms.”
States have raised privacy concerns as one reason that they have not shared more mental-health records with the database, and Goodlatte acknowledged that Congress is limited in what it can do to encourage information-sharing by the states. But he said the Judiciary Committee would raise the issue prominently.
“We’re certainly going to shine a spotlight on the fact that states need to do this,” he said. “At some point in time, the responsibility falls to the states to say, ‘Hey, we can save the lives of a lot of our citizens.’”
While Goodlatte and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have now both expressed support for improving the background check system as it currently exists, neither has shown support for a proposal Obama and congressional Democrats have called for: expanding the system to apply to nearly all gun sales, including those between private individuals.
Goodlatte expressed a willingness to take up another Obama proposal that has gained bipartisan support in recent weeks: a crackdown on straw purchasers. Democrats and Republicans in both legislative chambers have unveiled proposals to create tough penalties of up to 20 years for such purchasers.
“We’re looking very closely at those various proposals,” Goodlatte said. “We’re definitely interested.”
In the letters they sent to the administration earlier Friday, Goodlatte and the 22 other Republican members of the Judiciary Committee called on the Justice Department to provide data from 2001 to 2012 on the number of individuals who failed federal background checks on gun purchases and were prosecuted as a result.
The Republicans asked the department, “where possible,” to break out that information among the 93 federal prosecutors’ offices in the nation to show geographical patterns. The lawmakers also asked the department to provide statistics on a range of other gun-related prosecutions over the past decade — and to return it to the Judiciary Committee by March 8.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.