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Obama acts on background checks

| Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, 7:48 p.m.

HONOLULU — The Obama administration on Friday announced a pair of executive actions aimed at strengthening federal background checks for gun purchasers, with a particular focus on limiting firearm access for those with mental health issues.

One proposed rule change aims to clarify terminology used by federal law to prohibit people from purchasing a firearm for mental health reasons. The administration said states have complained that some wording is ambiguous, making it difficult to determine who should be blocked from buying a weapon.

The change would help states determine what information may be shared with the federal background check system for firearms transfers. The system has prevented more than 2 million guns from falling into the wrong hands, the Justice Department said.

A second proposed rule change would give hospitals and other entities covered by patient privacy provisions more flexibility in the information they provide to the background check system.

However, the administration said the rule change would not require reporting on general mental health care or legally prohibit someone from having a firearm solely because they sought treatment.

The White House announced the proposals while President Obama is vacationing in Hawaii.

Obama put forward sweeping gun control measures last year, prompted by the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. But the toughest proposals, including stricter background checks, fell flat on Capitol Hill, forcing the White House to rely on piecemeal measures that can be implemented without congressional approval.

Several perpetrators of the nation's worst mass shootings have had mental health issues, including Newtown shooter Adam Lanza. However, they acquired their guns in different ways, with Lanza using firearms purchased by his mother when he went on a rampage inside Sandy Hook Elementary.

In announcing the proposed rule changes, the White House called on Congress to again tackle gun control issues this year. However, there's little indication that lawmakers plan to take up the issue.

“Today, we are taking steps to further strengthen the federal background check system. It's time Congress joins us in this effort,” Vice President Joe Biden tweeted. Biden has led the White House's anti-gun violence efforts since the Newtown shooting.

The rule changes were proposed by the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. The agencies must accept and analyze public comments before issuing final rules.

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