WASHINGTON -- As part of a comprehensive package of proposals, Vice President Joseph Biden is recommending a law that could define gun trafficking as a federal crime, two sources close to the vice president's gun policy task force process told The Huffington Post.
Two other sources close to the task force said Biden's team reacted favorably during earlier discussions to including a gun trafficking recommendation. The White House declined to discuss the matter.
The language of the proposed law isn't known. Nor is it clear if the administration will suggest a statute itself, or let Congress fill in the blanks.
Gun control advocates said they were heartened by the prospects of a federal trafficking law, having warned for years that the absence of such a statue aids the illegal flow of firearms.
"I'd be thrilled," said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy of the centrist think tank Third Way and a former official at Americans for Gun Safety.
Currently, to convict someone of illegal gun distribution, law enforcement officials must prove that a person who transferred a weapon to a felon knew or had reasonable cause to believe that that person was indeed a felon. Phrased specifically, a federal law may make it illegal for sellers to transfer a firearm to someone with a record that prohibits them from owning one. It would, in effect, give a legal incentive (in the form of criminal punishment) for private sellers to conduct thorough background checks before making their sales. Such a policy could also create a disincentive for straw purchasers: those people with clean records who buy firearms to transfer to those prohibited from owning one.
"Under the law, prosecutors have to prove that you knew the person was a prohibited buyer, and that is too high of a standard," explained Kessler. "Our feeling is, why have any standard at all? If you sell a gun to somebody without a background check, you should be liable if that person is criminal."
The proposal was mentioned by Biden during introductory remarks to one of his several meetings with gun policy stakeholders. Its primary congressional supporters are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). Most recently, it has been pushed by the Center for American Progress, an influential liberal think tank. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke at a Center for American Progress event Monday about the merits of the idea and highlighted its need in cities like Chicago.
“You'll have people that will buy in Indiana, literally throw it in the back of the trunk … and then sell it out of the trunk. That's a different experience that obviously suburban or other places don't have,” Emanuel said, tying it to the broader need for background checks at all points of gun sales. “We have to deal with [gun trafficking] if we’re going to deal with what is not ‘a loophole’ when 40 percent of the guns are [sold without background checks]. It is an exemption, and that exemption has to be narrowed if not closed.”
Emanuel noted that he submitted a proposal to the Chicago City Council on Sunday to increase the city’s penalties for gun trafficking.
A federal trafficking statute would be just one portion of a larger, more comprehensive package of recommendations that the vice president is assembling for President Barack Obama in the wake of the mass shooting of elementary schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn. Biden presented his proposals on Monday. The president, according to sources close to the process, will likely announce his recommendations on Wednesday or later in the week.
Universal background checks for gun purchasers is expected to be a top priority for the administration. Other items in the mix will likely include restrictions on high-capacity gun magazines, some form of assault weapons ban, funding for school security, greater screening and treatment for the mental health of gun buyers, a call for greater coordination between state and federal law enforcement officials, and a more comprehensive database of gun purchases and violence.
Several gun control advocates have expressed concern that if the administration and allied Democrats were to push for one comprehensive package of reforms, it would be likely to be blocked by congressional Republicans. Instead, the advocates have urged the White House to consider a more piecemeal approach, in which the legislation that has broader agreement gets passed first, potentially building momentum for thornier items.
Even in the absence of congressional action, however, Obama seems poised to make a major gun policy push. In a press conference on Monday, he pledged to take executive action on some issues that may help stem gun violence.
"My starting point is to focus on what makes sense, what works, what should we be doing to make sure that our children are safe and that we're reducing the incidence of gun violence," said Obama. "And I think we can do that in a sensible way that comports with the Second Amendment and then members of Congress, I think, are going to have to have a debate and examine their own conscience."