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Justice Department delayed suggestions for tougher gun laws until after 2012 election

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Justice Department officials drew up a list of recommendations last year to reduce gun violence, but much of the effort was put on hold until after last month’s election, according to several officials who know about the efforts.

In March 2011, after the shooting that January of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asked senior Justice officials to research gun-control issues and devise recommendations for improvements.

Christopher Schroeder, then the head of the Office of Legal Policy, worked over the next year with the Criminal Division and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on the recommendations. He and other officials met with police chiefs, gun-control advocates, firearms dealers and officials who operate the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The National Rifle Association declined to take part, officials said.

One Justice official said Saturday that the department implemented some of the group’s suggestions, including steps to make background checks for gun purchases “more thorough and complete” by improving the volume and quality of information available to the FBI’s background check system.

But the recommendations to toughen gun laws, which would require congressional legislation, were put on hold until after the election, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to a reporter.

“Guns were not on the table,” one said. “They shut everything down over the last year.”

The delay in acting on the proposals was first reported Saturday by the New York Times.

Schroeder, who left the Justice Department last month and has returned to a position teaching law at Duke University, confirmed that he conducted the Justice study. He said that some of the recommendations are “a work in progress and are continuing to be refined.”

“I never considered them shelved,” Schroeder said. “They are all still under consideration.” He said the proposals would keep more guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

Schroeder’s recommendations were discussed with Holder; his deputy, James Cole; and other Justice officials, but there is no indication the list was sent to the White House. It is also not clear that the proposals, if implemented, would have prevented the Connecticut shooting. The shooter obtained the firearms he used from his mother, who bought them legally.

But the recommendations could have an impact on preventing guns from being purchased by criminals, drug users or people with a history of mental illness, the officials said.

One proposal would increase the penalties for “straw purchasers,” or people who buy guns for people who can’t themselves buy them legally. Penalties for such purchases have long been criticized as being too weak to deter straw buyers. This change would require congressional legislation, officials said.

“It was obvious that nothing in the legislative realm would move prior to the election,” one law enforcement official said.

Other proposals on the Justice list, however, could be enacted by President Obama by executive order.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment.

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