Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday that efforts in Washington to pass gun legislation in the wake of a spate of deadly mass shootings have been derailed because of the impeachment proceedings in Congress.
“Right now it does not appear that things in Washington are amenable to those kinds of negotiations and compromises,” Barr said at an event in Memphis, Tennessee, on Wednesday – the same day the House held the first public hearing in its impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and Ukraine.
Washington leaders’ attention sharpened on guns this summer after back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, left more than 30 people dead.
Trump at the time convened discussions with lawmakers from both parties and directed his domestic policy council and the Justice Department to prepare potential policy prescriptions. Barr, who took a leading role in the administration’s efforts, appeared on Capitol Hill to present Republicans with a proposal that would have expanded background checks for gun buyers.
Democrats in the House advanced a number of measures through the Judiciary Committee, but lawmakers had yet to find agreement on any legislative fixes. When Barr met with lawmakers to float the background check proposal, it was met with stiff opposition from some conservatives, and the White House distanced itself from it.
For his part, Trump never made a decision about which efforts he wanted to endorse – an act that leading Republican lawmakers said they were waiting for before moving forward.
Talks with lawmakers over gun legislation appeared to bottom out in late September, as the relationship between Trump and the Democratic speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi of California, soured over the nascent impeachment inquiry.
On Wednesday, Barr declared the legislative effort officially dead, while rolling out an operation that aimed to take illegal guns off the streets.
The gun initiative, known as Project Guardian, was among the proposals offered by the Justice Department in September. It amounts to one of the few responses to the mass shootings that the Trump administration has offered.
“Unfortunately, our discussions on the legislative aspects of this have been sidetracked because of the impeachment process on the Hill, and so we are going forward with all the operational steps that we can take that do not require legislative action,” Barr said.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will lead the new Justice Department initiative. A nationwide program, Project Guardian will involve enhanced coordination between federal law enforcement and local policing partners to identify gun crime offenders who could be charged on the federal level, where punishment can be more severe.
The program will also aim to crack down on evasions of the federal background check system, with a special focus on people who are rejected for mental health reasons.
Each year authorized gun sellers reject about 100,000 sales because of a buyer’s failure to pass a background check, Barr said. Of that total, 6,000 rejections are for prohibitions around certain designations of mental illness, he said.
Under Project Guardian, federal authorities will consult with local stakeholders about opportunities to engage with people who are barred from buying guns because of mental health prohibitions – through both law enforcement and less punitive avenues.
“We will consult with our state and local colleagues to determine whether there is available a mental health response, and try to ensure that this does not fall through the cracks simply because we don’t have an immediate law enforcement basis to arrest the person,” Barr said.