A Clinton administration working group on firearms is considering one of the broadest gun control proposals in decades, but White House officials said the president's commitment today is limited to further controls on assault weapons, increased oversight of gun dealers and a study of the national gun licensing system.
An interagency working group on firearms that includes officials from a half dozen agencies and departments is considering a list of gun control recommendations from the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that includes raising mandatory penalties on first time gun offenders and increasing by five times the number of gun ownership traces conducted by the bureau. The ATF proposals also would require that federal gun dealers be inspected each year.
The working group has not yet decided which of the proposals it would put before the White House and Clinton, but ATF has expressed reservations about national licensing, the one proposal the president has most warmly embraced.
But with a comprehensive crime package pending before Congress, a senior official said, "We are doing first things first and the first thing is the crime bill." The officials said it was unlikely that Clinton would make further legislative recommendations on gun control until after Congress returns in late January, the crime bill is taken up again and the appetite for further legislation is explored.
Until then, the Clinton team is putting great emphasis on what one official called "the multiple bully pulpits" of Clinton speaking out on violence and speeches by other senior administration officials.
Clinton yesterday stressed again the need curb violence, using the backdrop of Tuesday's Long Island Rail Road shootings.
"The American people are tired of hurting and tired of feeling insecure and tired of the violence," Clinton told mayors, police chiefs and other officials from 35 cites who met with him at the White House to present a mayors' task force report on violence.
Clinton said the country "is really prepared in a way that it has not been before . . . to do something about violent crime." He cited the crime bill as his first priority.
In the past week, he has also offered general support for national licensing and training of gun owners, of some type of national gun amnesty program in which illegal guns could be collected, of his support for a crime bill amendment that would ban weapons with high-capacity magazines and legislation that would make gun possession legal only for adults.
Attorney General Janet Reno said yesterday at her weekly news conference that she supports the concept of licensing firearms buyers or setting standards that they would have to meet before they can purchase guns. The Justice Office of Policy Development is reviewing the matter. But Reno said that she is generally opposed to simply establishing a registry of firearms owners, although it is unclear how there would be licensing without registration.
Some ATF officials are skeptical about the feasibility of a licensing system, at least at the federal level. They argue that such a system is better administered at the state and local level, with federal assistance.
Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, who is serving on the interagency violence task force, outlined the broader problem of gun violence in a speech here as part of the administration's effort to focus on the issue.
Shalala said that violence encompasses more than "assault with deadly weapons" and also includes "child abuse, sexual assault, spousal abuse, elder abuse and suicide."
She said she wished that there were "a single culprit that we can isolate and destroy like a tumor," but in reality there are many causes. All, she said, would have to be addressed, some through a public health approach of prevention and behavior change that her department, already uses for physical health problems.
The White House in August ordered the Treasury Department to do whatever it can without changes in the law to tighten controls over the nation's firearms dealers and to ban the import of foreign-made high-capacity assault pistols. The action expanded upon an earlier ban on imported assault rifles ordered by the Bush administration.
"While there is not one solution to the plague of gun-related violence, there is more than sufficient evidence indicating that a major part of the problem involves the present system of gun dealer licensing," a White House memorandum sent to the Treasury Department stated.
The administration's focus is on the more than 280,000 licensed federal gun dealers, who operate with little regulation because of the government's limited resources to oversee them. The administration called for ATF to improve the thoroughness of background checks on gun dealer applicants, including the fingerprinting of potential licensees and to automate records of all multiple firearm sales.
ATF spokesman Jack Killorin said that agency "is proceeding expeditiously" on the actions requested by the White House.
Staff writer Spencer Rich contributed to this report.