MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Attorney General William Barr announced a new initiative Wednesday that would better enforce the U.S. gun background check system, coordinate state and federal gun cases and ensure prosecutors quickly update databases to show when a defendant can’t possess a firearm because of mental health issues.
The push, known as Project Guardian, was unveiled at a news conference in Memphis, Tennessee, alongside officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, on the same day public impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump began in Washington.
As part of the program, U.S. prosecutors will coordinate with state and local law enforcement officials to consider potential federal charges when a suspect is arrested for weapons possession, is believed to have used a gun to commit a violent crime or drug-trafficking offense or is suspected of being a violent gang member.
“Gun crime remains a pervasive problem in too many communities across America,” Barr said in a statement.
The program “will strengthen our efforts to reduce gun violence by allowing the federal government and our state and local partners to better target offenders who use guns in crimes and those who try to buy guns illegally,” Barr said.
During the news conference, Barr said discussions about any new legislation tied to the project have been sidetracked due to the impeachment process on Capitol Hill. He said Congress has been asked for more resources, including more ATF agents and U.S. marshals.
“We are going forward with all the operational steps that we can take that do not require legislative action,” Barr said.
The initiative requires agents in charge of ATF offices across the country to either create new guidelines or review the protocols already in place to bring federal charges against people who lie in order to obtain a gun from a firearms dealer. Prosecutors will particularly focus on offenders who have violent backgrounds, are gang members or who have faced domestic violence charges.
U.S. attorney’s offices would also be required to quickly input information about people who can’t own guns for mental health reason into federal databases. The attorney general is also encouraging U.S. attorneys across the country to adopt programs that could help disrupt potential threats and consider recommending court-ordered mental health treatment, in some cases, for defendants found to be ineligible to own firearms for mental health reasons.
The federal government has come under scrutiny in recent years for failing to prevent some mass shooters from buying guns because of lapses in the background check system. In 2018, there were more than 26 million background checks conducted and fewer than 100,000 people failed. The vast majority were for a criminal conviction and just over 6,000 were rejected for a mental health issue.
Federal law defines nine categories that would prohibit someone from being legally allowed to own or possess a firearm. They include being convicted of any felony charge or a misdemeanor domestic violence, being subject to a restraining order or active warrants, being dishonorably discharged from the military, being addicted to drugs, renouncing your U.S. citizenship or being in the country illegally or being involuntarily committed to a mental health institution or being found by a court to be “a mental defective.”
A man who killed nine black parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, was able to buy his gun even though he has admitted to possessing drugs and a gunman who killed 26 people at a church in Texas was able to pass a background check because the Air Force had failed to report his criminal history to the FBI, which maintains the background check database.
A gunman who went on a rampage in West Texas in September, killing seven people, illustrated that even those who are barred from owning guns can skirt the law. That gunman had obtained his AR-style rifle through a private sale, allowing him to evade a federal background check that blocked him from getting a gun in 2014 due to a “mental health issue,” a law enforcement official told The Associated Press at the time.
Barr said background checks would be enforced “with a vengeance.”
The new program will also help enhance ATF’s crime gun intelligence efforts, which the agency uses to identify and target criminals and identify where they get their guns.
Agents will work alongside prosecutors to “cut the pipeline of crime guns from those violent individuals who seek to terrorize our communities,” said Regina Lombardo, ATF’s acting deputy director.
Barr noted that Memphis has about five times the national average rate of violent crime. Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings said violent crime in the Mississippi River city is way too high.
Balsamo reported from Washington.