WASHINGTON (CN) - Appearing before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch defended the president's authority to curb gun violence via executive action.
In a hearing of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, Lynch reiterated that President Barack Obama's actions adhere to existing law.
Witnesses and members of Congress demonstrated little outward agreement at the two-panel hearing, however, as to the perceived legality of Obama's initiatives, their effectiveness or their underlying intent.
The hearing took focus on how to balance constitutional rights with stopping bad actors from getting guns and how the Justice Department will implement the executive actions.
For one witness, the issue is deeply personal.
"It is important, especially in this context, that you take a moment to consider the humanity and the personal impact of what has been taken from us and what is at stake here," said Mark Barden, founder of Sandy Hook Promise.
Barden's son, Daniel, was among those killed in the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"In an instant, the little boy who danced around our house, rescued worms from the sun and held doors for strangers - was gone forever," he said.
Highlighting the 30,000 annual gun deaths that occur in the United States, the grieving father asked the subcommittee to consider the families who will lose loved ones to gun violence.
"I'm asking you to think of my sweet little Daniel and what was lost here ... and the 90 American families who will lose a loved one today, and another 90 tomorrow ... and so on every day until we do something," Barden said.
Obama's omnibus budget included more than $29 billion in funding for the Justice Department, with $1 billion of that earmarked for combating gun violence.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, posed the rhetorical question of "what will this $1 billion buy?"
"It will give the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives $840 million to enforce gun laws, trace firearms found at crime scenes and keep illegal guns away from traffickers and criminals," she continued.
The president has asked Congress to provide financial resources that will staff 200 additional ATF agents as part of the actions.
Attorney General Lynch told the judiciary subcommittee that the Justice Department also wants to see the National Instant Criminal Background Check System able to operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
While able to operate for about 17 hours per day now, the system has thus far prohibited 2 million people from purchasing guns, she said.
Lynch adding that technological glitches further hamper the system's ability to meet the demand for background checks on gun purchasers.
"We can't not try to prevent future tragedies," Lynch said in response to the naysayers.
It was such backlog in the background-check system, along with other glitches, that allowed the Charleston church shooter, Dylan Roof, to obtain his weapon, Lynch said.
The attorney general noted that Roof's arrest record for drug possession was located in one jurisdiction, but the query for his background check was made in another.
Because of the delay in putting this together, Roof's background check did not clear within the federally designated three-day time period, allowing him to go ahead and purchase the .45-calibur handgun.
It was frankly "heartbreaking," Lynch said.
Increasing examiners for the background-check system would help with some of the glitches and eliminating some of the backlog, the AG added.
Other witnesses and senators were particularly perplexed by a perceived lack of clarity on designating who qualifies as a gun seller under the executive actions.
"By clarifying what it means to be 'engaged in the business' of dealing firearms, we raise awareness of and enhance compliance with laws that are already on the books," Lynch said.
Refuting claims that the guidelines on this are arbitrary, Lynch said that the Justice Department relied on court rulings on who is engaged in selling.
No specific number exists as a threshold to determine when someone becomes a dealer in need of a license, Lynch added, saying the totality of the circumstances will instead dictate whether someone is a seller.
The impetus behind requiring all sellers to be licensed, according to the executive actions, is to ensure that background checks are conducted on every person that buys a gun - whether from a gun show, a private seller or on the Internet.
On this, one witness said the president has exceeded his authority.
"Congress has expressly exempted individuals who only occasionally sell a gun from the requirement to be licensed," said Joyce Lee Malcolm, a constitutional law professor at George Mason University. "Only Congress can change that requirement."
Ken Cuccinelli, an attorney with the United Self Defense Law Firm and former Virginia attorney general, said The president and the attorney general are "intentionally" creating ambiguity and confusion about who qualifies as a gun dealer.
"When someone selling a single gun might be in violation of a law with five year jail penalties, one can only call that dishonorable intimidation of the citizenry by its government, Cuccinelli said.
Under the new actions, unlicensed dealers could face a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
As the hearing wrapped up, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., urged the debate to adhere to what is factually evident.
"I hope that as we have this debate, it's not anchored in perceived intentions of what the administration is quietly, secretly planning to do, but that the objections are based in the actual text of the executive order," said Murphy.
"When you come back to the text, it says exactly what we all agree on, which is that we should enforce the existing law, we should require people engaged in the business of selling firearms to get licensed wherever they do so, and that we should let out from under that ... regulation those that are just selling firearms occasionally from a personal collection," Murphy concluded.
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