The New York Times’ Charlie Savage detailed yesterday how the Justice Department shelved proposals to make background checks more robust in the wake of the 2011 Tuscon shooting that left six dead and thirteen injured.

It pains me how cliche this has become in my writing on Newtown, but it highlights the massive struggle the administration is sure to face if it tries to advance gun control. A department study on the issue, for example, stressed that assault weapons bans were unlikely to be approved by Congress. Savage also pointed out that polls since 2008 have evidenced little enthusiasm for stricter gun control, although the Newtown tragedy may turn the tide against the Hestonistas.

The DOJ proposal, however, noted several initiatives the White House could take on strengthening background checks through executive order:

For example, the study recommended that all agencies that give out benefits, like the Social Security Administration, tell the F.B.I. background-check system whenever they have made arrangements to send a check to a trustee for a person deemed mentally incompetent to handle his own finances, or when federal employees or job applicants fail a drug test. It also proposed setting up a system to appeal such determinations.

I, personally, have serious reservations about the house that J. Edgar Hoover built keeping a list of “persons deemed mentally incompetent” (fodder for another post, perhaps). But I can see the appeal if the threshold to determine mental competence is set high enough, and if a legal firewall could ensure that this information is solely used as an acid test to determine who can own a weapon capable of killing dozens of people in a matter of minutes.

Still, based on precedent, it hardly seems likely that the GOP will agree to any of these proposals. And if they do, they will likely wait for an opportunity to repeal them, as they are doing with safeguards enacted after the Virginia Tech massacre.

Savage explains:

…it emerged that a state judge had deemed [killer Cho Seung-Hui] mentally ill, but that information was not in the F.B.I. Database.

“In 2008, Congress called upon federal agencies that might know whether someone is mentally ill to make sure the F.B.I. database had that information. But most agencies that have such information — as varied as Social Security and the Railroad Retirement Board — have yet to comply.”

“The Department of Veterans Affairs, by contrast, does share its data about instances in which benefit checks are sent to a trustee because a recipient has been deemed mentally incompetent. Republicans in Congress have introduced a bill, the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act, that would end the practice.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.