U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch defended the Obama administration's plans to expand background checks on firearms purchases as lawful and "common sense" executive actions to address what she called an epidemic of gun violence.
"These actions will help to make our people safer, our communities more secure and our law enforcement more effective," Lynch said in testimony Wednesday before a Senate appropriations subcommittee. They "are all well-reasoned measures, well within existing legal authorities, built on work that's already under way."
President Barack Obama, who has been stymied by Congress in previous attempts to strengthen gun laws, two weeks ago announced executive actions to expand background checks of people purchasing guns from small dealers. He also pledged to hire hundreds of workers to modernize the background check system to handle the additional requests.
In addition, the president is requesting $500 million for new mental health research, and the Department of Health and Human Services is clarifying rules to remove some of the barriers to reporting a person's mental health status to the background-check information system.
The actions, especially a proposal to broaden the definition of a gun dealer to boost the number of required background checks, have been met with sharp criticism by Republicans.
Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that called the hearing to examine the new rules, said in a Jan. 6 statement that he strongly opposed "attempts to infringe on the right to keep and bear arms, and I will use all avenues to stop his reckless, unlawful action."
"I'm concerned that the president is slowly chipping away at our Second Amendment rights," Shelby, an Alabama Republican, told Lynch at the hearing.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a case to determine the constitutionality of Obama's 2014 executive action on immigration to allow more undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally. The gun executive action could face a similar court challenge as opponents question the president's authority to make these adjustments absent a change in law.
Republicans and gun-rights supporters have said that expanded background checks wouldn't have blocked the sales of weapons used in most recent mass shootings, including the December terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, and the 2012 massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The firearms in those cases were purchased legally through conventional outlets.
Though Lynch conceded in her written testimony that she had "no illusions that these measures by themselves will end gun violence in America," she said the actions "will bring progress on a number of fronts."