The Limits of Obama's Moves on Gun Control

Rip up the Second Amendment? Save thousands of lives? Despite the hype and the dread, the president’s policy options are ultimately too constrained to have much effect.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Reading the instant reactions from the right and left to President Obama’s gun announcement on Tuesday, you might have thought—if you were an ardent gun-rights supporter—that the president had walked over to the National Archives, retrieved an original copy of the Constitution, and scrawled a bright red X through the Second Amendment.

“Our president is not a king,” proclaimed Representative Charles Boustany, a Louisiana Senate candidate who simultaneously announced he was signing onto something called the Separation of Powers Restoration and Second Amendment Protection Act. (That’s SOPRASAPA, if you’re into acronyms.) House Speaker Paul Ryan accused Obama of “intimidation that undermines liberty,” while Senator Marco Rubio charged that he was “obsessed with undermining the Second Amendment.” “OBAMA WANTS YOUR GUNS,” read a campaign fundraising pitch from Senator Ted Cruz that featured the president wearing commando gear.

Conversely, if you listened to the administration’s Democratic allies, you might have thought the president had taken heroic and far-reaching action that would restrict access to guns and prevent thousands of needless violent deaths. Top congressional Democrats hailed the gun package as “bold,” “life-saving,” and “comprehensive.”

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.

To a large extent, the wide difference in scope between Obama’s executive action on immigration and guns stems from a consensus within the gun-control community about just how limited his legal options were. Hardly any advocates on Tuesday complained that he should have done more. “He did as much as he could do,” said Elizabeth Avore, legal director of Everytown for Gun Safety. Along with several other gun-control advocacy organizations, Everytown has pushed hard to create a universal background check system that would encompass all buyers and sellers. “That requires legislative action,” she said.

Looming over the deliberations over gun policy was the fact that the much more expansive actions Obama took on immigration have been blocked by the courts, and the administration must now rely on a favorable Supreme Court ruling to see them implemented. At the same time, if the changes are so clearly legal and sensible, the question naturally becomes, why didn’t the president make them before?

Neither the advocates nor Obama tried to argue that any of the changes he announced would have stopped the myriad mass shootings that have occurred during his presidency and prompted his aggressive public push for congressional action on guns. Yet even as Obama acknowledged the limits of his power, he grew animated at the suggestion that even the most modest efforts to prevent gun violence were futile.

Each time this comes up, we are fed the excuse that common-sense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, or the one before that, so why bother trying?  I reject that thinking. We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world.  But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.

It’s an appeal the president has now made repeatedly, and it cut to the point of his announcement. The steps he is taking might not amount to much in substance, but they can at least reignite the gun debate at the outset of an election year. (They also are likely to spur another spike in gun sales.) As with the immigration move in 2014, Obama’s decision to act unilaterally is a reflection that the window for any congressional action has closed.

And to the extent the regulatory and administrative changes are worth hyping, it’s because the standard for any action on guns has been so low. “The sad fact is that because Congress really has done nothing in the face of repeated tragedy and gun violence, this is the most significant federal reform to gun policy in the last two decades,” Freilich said. “It is modest, but meaningful.”

This article is part of our With Great Power project, which is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.