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Gun Policy

At Senate Gun Hearing, Democrats and Republicans See Wildly Different Things in President Obama’s Executive Actions

Supporters and opponents of the moves seemed to occupy entirely different universes.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a Senate committee Wednesday that President Barack Obama’s recent executive actions on background checks for gun sales merely clarify existing law and “are fully consistent with the laws passed by Congress.”

Minutes later, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli disagreed. Cuccinelli told the panel that Lynch and President Obama were acting “to intentionally create confusion and ambiguity about whether someone selling a single gun might be in violation of a law with a five year penalty,” actions he said amount to “dishonorable intimidation of the citizenry by its government.”

Cuccinelli watched as Lynch testified, and a few times referenced her testimony during his own. That whiff of discourse was notable. Otherwise, it seemed that the supporters and opponents of Obama’s executive actions were occupying entirely different universes.

Looking at the same document, a copy of the guidance Obama issued, the two sides saw wildly divergent things: a modest bid to explain standing rules or an attack on the Constitution. Republicans and Democrats on the panel questioned their own witnesses and appealed to own their constituents as the stated purpose of the hearing — a review of the Justice Department’s funding request for next year by the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on commerce — mostly fell by the wayside.

The divide highlights an ongoing challenge in the fight over gun laws. Polls show nearly 90 percent of voters express support for requiring background checks for all gun purchases. The problem is often less disagreement than lack of meaningful communication.

The parties differed over Obama’s executive actions, which seek to define who the government considers to be “in the business” of selling firearms. Such sellers are required to obtain federal licenses and conduct background checks on buyers.

Lynch said Obama’s guidance pulls together case law on the issue, aiding citizens who can’t conduct complex legal research.

The panel’s Republican chairman, Richard Shelby — who is facing a primary fight against a right-wing challenger in his home state of Alabama — accused the Obama Administration of “chipping away at Second Amendment rights.”

“The department is on notice,” Shelby told Lynch in an apparent threat to DOJ funding. “This subcommittee will have no part in undermining the Constitution and the rights it protects.” The Obama administration is seeking money to hire 230 more FBI background check examiners and add 200 agents to the ATF.

Shelby asked the witnesses he invited to participate in a second round of testimony, following his questioning of Lynch, on Wednesday to confirm his views. He started many questions with the words: “Don’t you agree?” He did not address questions to Mark Barden, who became an advocate for stricter gun laws in after his son Daniel, 7, was among the 26 people fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.

Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, who invited Barden, tried unsuccessfully to get Cuccinelli and two other witnesses, George Mason University law professor Joyce Lee Malcolm and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, to identify the specific wording in the background check guidance that they found objectionable.

“I sort of feel as if this is a hearing on a document that I haven’t seen,” Murphy said.

In written testimony before the hearing, Strange called the guidance “an unwarranted assault on the Second Amendment.” But when pressed by the senator, Strange seemed unable to elaborate.

“I wanted to deliver the message from men and women on the street,” he said referencing unnamed law enforcement officials, “and get their opinion and bring it here.”

Cuccinelli also avoided citing specific language, but argued the intent of the guidance is to scare gun sellers.

“If all they wanted to do is actually apply the law that exists today, they wouldn’t have to say anything,” he said.

The hearing did include a few quieter efforts to find agreement. Several Republican senators on the panel questioned Obama’s executive actions but indicated openness to several of their individual provisions.

West Virginia Republican Shelly Moore Capito, whose state houses the National Instant Background Check System, expressed support for adding employees to boost what she called the “overstressed” system. The Obama administration has said that the additional personnel for processing background checks and examining applicants that don’t clear immediately would allow NICS to operate 24 hours a day, up from 17 hours currently.

And Oklahoma Republican James Lankford asked Lynch to work with him to help states send more data to the background check system. “I don’t find anyone here that says we shouldn’t do background checks,” Lankford said. “This is an area of common ground where we could actually work together.”

[Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images]