Obama Finally Takes Action on Gun Control. But What Does This mean?
With tears streaming down his cheeks, President Obama finally said “enough is enough.” Yesterday, January 5th, he announced a number of executive actions on gun control–helping make this nation appear at least somewhat less like a warzone. We just ended a year plagued by out-of-control gun violence. At least nearly 13,000 people died in 2015 as a result of a gun homicide, unintentional shooting, or murder/suicide. That’s bad enough, but when combined with the 372 mass shootings in the past year, it shows that America is a country defined by gun-related violence. It has cast the United States in a starkly negative light internationally and has left most rational people wondering what the hell is going on. I mean, there were more mass shootings than days in a year. Over 100,000 people have been killed as a result of gun violence in the past decade.
It’s absolutely unacceptable, but draws upon a stark ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans in and outside of Washington. According to a December CNN/ORC poll, 48% of Americans said they were in favor of stricter gun control laws, 51% were opposed. When broken down by political party, 74% of Democrats are in favor of stricter laws, while just 23% of Republicans feel the same way. This has made passing any new legislation literal hell for anyone—especially President Obama. He famously called gun control and the legislative pushback against his reforms the “biggest frustration” of his presidency last year.
In the aftermath of the 2012 massacre of first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an amendment was proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to require background checks for commercial gun sales. The measure was scrapped in a shot down by Democrats and Republicans in a tight 54-46 vote nearly three years ago, and, since then, no new legislation has come close to fixing gun violence—until now.
President Obama announced yesterday that after one of the bloodiest years for gun violence in recent memory, he had officially lost all fucks to give. The President decided to circumvent Congress and pass executive orders that will tighten background checks, he proposed an increase in funding for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents, and he sought a $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care. These sound solid in theory, but it’s important to look at these actions logistically, in the grand context of what can actually be achieved through Obama’s new actions. Before we even begin to think about the methodical language involved with discussions about background checks, we have to start with one basic question.
The Legality of Executive Actions
The basic fact is that executive actions hold almost no legal weight. According to political writer Tom Murse, “The terms executive action and executive order are not interchangeable. Executive orders are legally binding and published in the Federal Register. A good way to think of executive actions is a wish list of policies the president would like to see enacted.”
With this in mind, it’s important now to consider how binding these actions are, and whether they would hold up legally if the GOP decides to take the President to court. On Monday, January 4th, Obama held a meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to confirm that his plan was constitutionally legal. Then, hours before the announcement, his Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett made this statement:
“Let’s be specific – the president is not circumventing Congress,” she told CNN. “There is a lot that we can do in the executive branch that we are doing [but] there is lots of room for working with Congress and they are important to the successful implementation of what the president is opposing today.”
Obama himself was quick to note that these actions still relied on Congress to pass truly comprehensive gun control measures, because many of the actions he’s calling for can only be imposed through legislative action. What he is doing through his legal authority is simply tightening language around gun selling to create a more unified system of background checks.
Clarifying Language and Tightening Loopholes
Putting aside all of the proposed increases in spending on mental health, the FBI, and ATF staff, the entire announcement revolves around one push to redefine who is required to get a background check and who isn’t. This distinction all comes down to one phrase: “engaged in the business.” The business here, of course, being firearm sales.
Under current law, the difference is as loose as your aunt on a girlfriends getaway to Vegas. A firearm dealer “devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms,” but is not someone “who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.” This coded language was a Get Out of Jail Free card for sellers at gun shows who bought and sold from their personal collections, and it was a surefire means of getting a gun without a background check, or even regardless of age.
The thing about background checks is that they aren’t trying to take away guns people own, which is a common fear among NRA supporters. Background checks are simply a means of ensuring that those who are not mentally and legally capable of owning a gun can’t buy one. As it stands, only those who own gun shops are required by law to conduct a background check. With the new executive action, Obama has worked together with the ATF to come up with the following definition:
“A person can be engaged in the business of dealing in firearms regardless of the location in which firearm transactions are conducted. For example, a person can be engaged in the business of dealing in firearms even if the person only conducts firearm transactions at gun shows or through the Internet.”
If you go to a gun show buy an actual gun, you will most likely be required to fill out background checks under Obama’s new executive action. If you are the one selling guns, it truly is better run background checks on potential customers—you can be fined as much as $250,000 if you sell firearms, but don’t conduct background checks as required.
So, is all of this restructuring and tightening of language even legal? Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a former director of research for the Task Force on Firearms of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, seems to think it holds up legally within Obama’s presidential power.
“It is certainly consistent with the capacity and responsibility of the executive branch of government to make legislative standards coherent and clear,” Zimring said. “[He is] trying to make it coherent and clear — and give it more reach.”
What It Means
As with anything President Obama does, there is already intense political backlash against the executive actions outlined by Obama. The good news is that because the government is funded through September, Republican lawmakers can’t use their favorite tactic of holding the budget hostage to get what they want. And if they take it to court, it would take longer than Obama will even be in office. The bad news is that they aren’t giving up. As one shadowy senior Republican lawmaker told The Hill: “We will be using every tool in the toolkit to stop him. All options are on the table.” He wasn’t the only politician speaking out against the action. Republican leader and House Speaker Paul Ryan came out with an official statement on the proposed measures.
“His words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty,” he explained. “No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment. We will conduct vigilant oversight.”
This may sound wild, but perhaps the best option here would not be to focus all efforts on stopping Obama’s last-ditch effort to ease the epidemic of gun violence in the US. Perhaps the best option for Republican lawmakers would be to step back, and reevaluate why they feel the need to fight against stricter gun control legislation–legislation that will help save the people who voted these same lawmakers into office. Obama’s executive actions are not a miracle cure, but they are a step in the right direction. And in a year plagued with over 13,000 gun deaths, any step forward is better than complacency.
Images and video via The White House, Jessica Hill, Jason Redmond, Jim Lo Scalzo, Jacquelyn Martin, and Lexey Swall.