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On Tuesday, former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., who leads a National Rifle Association-backed task force on school safety, called for expanded background checks. On Wednesday, President Obama visited Denver to applaud the state's recent passage of tough new gun laws, and urged Congress to follow suit. And on Thursday, neither of those efforts is likely to have moved the needle because Republicans have a ready-made response to both.
"I'll be happy to look at any piece of legislation that anybody brings forward as it relates to federal gun control—when the administration begins to enforce the current laws," Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., recently told National Journal Daily.
The argument that government should not take bigger bites until it proves to be an effective chewer is not, in and of itself, new or unique. But conservative Republicans have used it with increasing effectiveness in recent weeks, often citing law-enforcement statistics—which are regularly disputed, making them difficult to place in proper context—to abruptly end any gun-related line of questioning. And, as public pressure continues to dissipate after December's mass shooting in Newton, Conn., GOP lawmakers have used this tactic to turn the tables on the president, arguing that his administration hasn't done enough to enforce current laws to justify its calls for more.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., recently noted that one of Obama's 23 executive orders related to gun control is: "Maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime." Huelskamp, echoing many of his fellow conservatives, said he won’t discuss the other 22 initiatives until the White House follows through on that one. "It doesn't require a single bill to be passed," he said. "It requires [Attorney General] Eric Holder and the president of the United States to quit talking and do the job."
This sentiment is not limited to Congress's lower chamber. And it regularly comes attached to figures about the U.S. government's gun-related prosecutions, all of which the White House and Justice Department dispute.
"In any conversation about how to prevent future tragedies such as Sandy Hook, our focus should be on stopping criminals from obtaining guns," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a statement late last week. "Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has failed to make this a priority—in 2010, out of more than 15,700 fugitives and felons who tried to illegally purchase a firearm, the Obama Justice Department prosecuted only 44. That is unacceptable."
These remarks from Cruz capped a steady barrage of similar statements over the past month from Republicans, aiming to shift the media’s focus from the prospects of new gun laws to the failures of current ones. The apex of this GOP counteroffensive came in late February, when House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., sent a letter to Obama, demanding answers for what he characterized as lax enforcement of existing gun laws.
According to Goodlatte, prosecutions following background checks that resulted in purchase denials are too low for the White House to argue that its Justice Department is adequately enforcing current law. In the letter, Goodlatte said that of 76,142 denials following an instant background check in 2010, 4,732 were referred to field offices for investigation. And of those, only 62 prosecutions resulted. “A prosecution rate this low is not indicative of a Department of Justice that takes the act of illegally attempting to acquire a firearm seriously," he wrote.
The White House says the very evidence Goodlatte presents underscores the value of background checks.
"If the background check system stopped more than 75,000 people who shouldn’t have guns from getting them in just one year, why wouldn’t we side with 90 percent of Americans and close loopholes that let those people go around the system?” said White House spokesman Matt Lehrich.
The Obama administration also says Republicans are using bad numbers when they say federal prosecutions are in decline. According to the Justice Department, U.S. attorneys in 2012 charged 11,728 defendants with a gun crime, setting a level of prosecution under federal gun laws that has remained fairly constant over the last four years.
No matter. Republicans hope that their arguments for more aggressive prosecution under current law can inoculate them against criticism for opposing more gun-control measures, especially as onetime opponents such as Hutchinson peel off from the pack. Hutchinson told CNN on Tuesday that he personally supports universal background checks, the linchpin of Obama's gun-control plan.
Whether this gives GOP lawmakers cover to support the idea remains to be seen. But for those who won't budge, there's a tried-and-true explanation. As Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., put it recently, "It's not about new gun laws; it's about enforcing the ones we have."