WASHINGTON – The National Rifle Association is using a Justice Department memo it obtained to argue in ads that the Obama administration believes its gun control plans won’t work unless the government seizes firearms and requires national gun registration – ideas the White House has not proposed and does not support.
The NRA’s assertion and its obtaining of the memo in the first place underscore the no-holds-barred battle under way as Washington’s fight over gun restrictions heats up.
The memo, under the name of one of the Justice Department’s leading crime researchers, critiques the effectiveness of gun control proposals, including some of President Barack Obama’s. A Justice Department official called the memo an unfinished review of gun violence research and said it does not represent administration policy.
The memo says requiring background checks for more gun purchases could help, but also could lead to more illicit weapons sales. It says banning assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines produced in the future but exempting those already owned by the public, as Obama has proposed, would have limited impact because people now own so many of those items.
It also says that even total elimination of assault weapons would have little overall effect on gun killings because assault weapons account for a limited proportion of those crimes.
The nine-page document says the success of universal background checks would depend in part on “requiring gun registration,” and says gun buybacks would not be effective “unless massive and coupled with a ban.”
The administration has not proposed gun registration, buybacks or banning all firearms. But gun registration and ownership curbs are hot-button issues for the NRA and other gun-rights groups, which strenuously oppose the ideas.
Justice Department and White House officials declined to provide much information about the memo or answer questions about it on the record.
The memo has the look of a preliminary document and calls itself “a cursory summary” and assessment of gun curb initiatives. The administration has not release it officially.
But the NRA has posted the memo on one of its websites and cites it in advertising aimed at whipping up opposition to Obama’s efforts to contain gun violence. The ad says the paper shows that the administration “believes that a gun ban will not work without mandatory gun confiscation” and thinks universal background checks “won’t work without requiring national gun registration” — ideas the president has not proposed or expressed support for.
“Still think President Obama’s proposals sound reasonable?” Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s chief Washington lobbyist, says in the ad.
Last month, White House spokesman Jay Carney said none of Obama’s proposals “would take away a gun from a single law-abiding American.” Other administration officials have said their plans would not result in gun seizures or a national gun registry.
A Justice Department official who would only discuss the issue on condition of anonymity said the NRA ad misrepresents Obama’s gun proposals and that the administration has never backed a gun registry or gun confiscation.
While the memo’s analysis of gun curb proposals presents no new findings, it is unusual for a federal agency document to surface that raises questions about a president’s plans during debate on a high-profile issue such as restricting firearms.
Obama wants to ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines exceeding 10 rounds that are produced in the future. He wants universal background checks for nearly all gun purchases. Today, checks are only mandatory on sales by federally licensed gun dealers, not transactions at gun shows or other private sales.
His plan also includes tougher federal laws against gun trafficking and straw purchases, which occur when a person legally buys a firearm but sells it to a criminal or someone else barred from owning a weapon.
Interest in the gun issue has intensified since the December shootings in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 first-graders and six staffers at an elementary school. The Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee plans to write legislation addressing some of Obama’s proposals in the next week or two.
The NRA’s Cox declined to say how his organization obtained the memo.
He said the commercial is running online in 15 states, including many Republican-leaning states where Democrats will defend Senate seats next year, such as Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. There are also ads in papers in five states.
The memo was written under the name of Greg Ridgeway, acting director of the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department’s research arm. It is dated Jan. 4, nearly two weeks before Obama announced his plan for restricting guns, and Ridgeway’s first day as acting chief.
Justice Department officials said Ridgeway was not granting interviews. He came to the institute last July from the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institution where he studied criminal justice issues, and has a Ph.D. in statistics.
The memo says straw purchases and gun thefts are the largest sources of firearms used in crimes, and that such transactions “would most likely become larger if background checks at gun shows and private sellers were addressed.”
Gun control supporters said the NRA ad and the Justice memo don’t mention that the current federal background check system blocked gun sales to 2.1 million criminals and others barred from owning guns between 1994, when the checks began, and 2010. Also ignored is that Obama has proposed cracking down on straw purchases to prevent a growth in illegal transactions, they said.
Advocates of restricting guns also said the memo omitted mention of several studies that affirm the effectiveness of firearms curbs. These include a 2010 police group analysis showing more than one-third of police departments found increased criminal use of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines since the 2004 expiration of the ban on those items.
“It doesn’t appear to be a serious discussion of gun violence prevention policy, never mind an expression of administration policy,” said Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
The memo says that out of 11,000 annual gun homicides, an average of 35 deaths yearly are from mass shootings, defined as those with four or more victims.
“Policies that address the larger firearm homicide issue will have a far greater impact even if they do not address the particular issues of mass shootings,” it says.
It says there were an estimated 1.5 million assault weapons before the 10-year ban on those firearms began in 1994, so their sheer number would weaken a new ban exempting existing weapons. Such guns accounted for just 2 percent to 8 percent of crimes before the 1994 ban, so eliminating assault weapons “would not have a large impact on gun homicides,” the memo said.
Recent data on the assault weapons ban impact is scarce because since the 1990s, Congress has blocked most federal research on the effect that firearms have on public health. As part of the gun restrictions Obama proposed last month, he ordered federal scientific agencies to research gun violence.