The reality, however, is that the alternate cries of outrage and celebration are much ado about not very much.
The centerpiece change that Obama announced on Tuesday is simply a clarification of how the government defines people “engaged in the business” of selling firearms. It will expand the number of gun-dealers who must be licensed and conduct background checks, but it would not subject all buyers to background checks, nor would it require all sellers to conduct them. It doesn’t even set a threshold for the number of firearms sold that would subject a dealer to the new rules.
The president will also require background checks for people who try to buy dangerous weapons through a trust or corporation, rather than as individuals. Most of the additional actions Obama announced involved beefing up and modernizing the existing background-check system, hiring more agents and investigators for the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and pouring $500 million into mental-health treatment programs—perhaps the only change that might garner Republican support, and since it will require congressional approval, certainly one that will need it.
The hype surrounding Obama’s announcement—and the threats of lawsuits and corrective action from Congress—recalls the anticipation leading up to the president’s executive actions on immigration in late 2014, when he detailed plans to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation and overhauled federal enforcement policy. But in substance, the changes to gun policy pale by comparison.
The limited nature of the executive actions initially took gun-rights supporters by surprise. “That’s it, really?” the NRA’s Jennifer Baker told The New York Times on Monday night. “They’re not really doing anything.” By Tuesday afternoon, however, the NRA had found more to criticize and said in a statement that the proposals were “ripe for abuse by the Obama administration.” John Velleco, director of operations for Gun Owners of America, had a similar reaction. He told me in an interview on Tuesday that after reading the language put out by the White House, he feared the clarification of the definition of a gun-dealer was “much more significant than we first believed to be.” Because the administration is not clearly stating how many guns someone has to sell to be considered a professional dealer who must conduct background checks, Velleco worried that private gun transactions could be targeted.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence helped draft the new federal rules, and staff attorney Ari Freilich said the new language exempted “occasional sellers” and was designed to encompass people who sell guns “as a profession.” Among the factors that would determine whether someone had to conduct background checks, Freilich said, would be whether they had business cards, advertised online, or sold guns in their original packaging soon after buying them. He argued that even without a specific numerical threshold, the new guidelines would be a big step forward for ATF because the old rule was so vague it was almost impossible to enforce.