Gun Background Checks Get An Executive Action Boost

Sure, the prospect of Congress passing gun-control legislation seems pretty unlikely at this point, but the Obama administration isn't giving up. On Friday, the White House proposed two executive-level changes to how gun background checks work, with the goal of keeping firearms from the hands of the mentally unstable.

These wouldn’t be drastic changes in federal policy, but rather modest measures aiming to modify existing laws. Vice President Joe Biden announced the two proposals this morning; they’d be implemented by the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, respectively. An executive-level change is a policy change, instituted unilaterally by the executive branch, and only allowed to affect federal policy.

The first change, proposed by HHS, is intended to address the some states’ concerns that sharing people’s mental health information with the federal background check database violates the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The HHS is proposing to fix this by giving certain HIPAA-covered entities express permission to share this information with the federal government.

The second change, proposed by the DOJ, is really more of a linguistic clarification than anything else. It will provide more expansive definitions of certain terms that are used to prohibit people from purchasing handguns, such as “committed to a mental institution.”

“The proposed rule will not change the fact that seeking help for mental health problems or getting treatment does not make someone legally prohibited from having a firearm,” Biden’s office said in a press release.

“Furthermore, nothing in the proposed rule would require reporting on general mental health visits or other routine mental health care, or would exempt providers solely performing these treatment services from existing privacy rules.”

It may not be much, but it’s something. These changes compliment Biden’s announcement at the end of last year that the federal government will allocate an additional $100 million to bolster mental health services.