WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Loretta Lynch defended President Barack Obama's executive actions curbing guns before Congress on Wednesday, telling lawmakers that the president took lawful steps to stem firearms violence that kills and injures tens of thousands of Americans yearly.
"I have complete confidence that the common sense steps announced by the president are lawful," Lynch told the Senate Appropriations Committee panel that oversees the Justice Department. Early in an election year in which both parties seem ready to make guns a political issue, Lynch called Obama's moves "well-reasoned measures, well within existing legal authorities, built on work that's already underway."
The modest steps Obama announced two weeks ago were immediately attacked by a top Republican, who said the measures were the latest of the president's actions infringing on the constitutional right to own guns and exceeding his executive branch powers.
"The department is on notice," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the subcommittee, told Lynch. "This subcommittee will have no part in undermining the Constitution and the rights that it protects."
Some GOP senators on the panel mixed distaste for Obama's unilateral moves with an openness to some of the details. That included his proposal to boost the number of FBI personnel who process background checks so the system can operate 24 hours daily instead of its current 17 hours.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., in whose state the background check system is based, said some of Obama's proposals were "political messaging" but expressed support for buttressing the "overstressed" system.
Backed by the National Rifle Association, the GOP-led Congress is all but certain to take no action curbing firearms this year. But the gulf between Lynch and Shelby underscored that the issue will be part of the presidential and congressional campaigns.
Already, Democratic presidential candidates have backed Obama's moves while GOP contenders have lambasted them as wilting gun rights and abusing his presidential powers. House Republicans have said they will create a task force to study "executive overreach" by Obama and other presidents.
Shelby, who faces a conservative challenger in his March 1 Senate GOP primary, criticized Obama's response to recent mass shootings, including last month's killing of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, by a Muslim couple that authorities say had been radicalized. Shelby said that instead of tightening screening for potentially violent immigrants or addressing "our law enforcement's failures," Obama has instead resorted to "grandstanding and engaging in anti-gun theatrics."
Lynch said the actions were appropriate.
"As the list of tragedies involving firearms has grown, so has the American people's belief that we must do more to stem the tide of gun violence, and this administration is committed to doing our part," she said.
Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, backed Lynch's remarks, saying, "We do need to change our nation's culture of violence. We do need to stop guns from getting into the wrong hands."
Obama's actions include guidance on who the government will consider "in the business" of selling firearms — a phrase used to describe which dealers must obtain federal licenses and conduct background checks on buyers. Even those selling a few guns online or at gun shows can be required to get licenses and perform background checks, the administration said.
Other steps include hiring 230 more FBI background check examiners; adding 200 agents to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; boosting federal research on gun safety technology and asking Congress for $500 million to improve mental health programs.
Lynch said Obama's 2017 budget, to be released in February, will seek $80 million for his gun proposals, largely for the additional FBI and ATF agents.
Gun violence has flared anew as a political issue following the San Bernardino killings. Obama failed to push gun curbs through Congress in the months following the 2012 killings of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, and despite periodic mass shootings the GOP-led House and Senate remain opposed to restricting firearms.
Government statistics show that over 30,000 Americans die from firearms wounds yearly, two-thirds of which are suicides.