President Obama finally announced some strides on gun control yesterday. Now we see if they’ll stick the landing.
The president’s attempts to coordinate stricter federal gun laws with Congress were unsuccessful following Sandy Hook is once again taking matters into his own hands, announcing new executive actions yesterday that he hopes will curb gun violence in the U.S. Obama, who has often cited gun control as the one area he’s felt “most frustrated” during his time in the Oval Office, is clearly done waiting for this to become a bipartisan issue. But like other executive actions, this deal is a long way from good and done.
Though the exact details of the actions are still to come, Obama outlined a few key features in his speech Tuesday in the East Room:
- Anyone in the business of selling firearms needs a license, curbing or controlling the number of for-profit dealers (as opposed to collectors or people who give or sell guns to friends or family).
- And all sales must include a background check from the dealers—even if they are online or at a gun show. There will be an exception for those who buy or sell as collectors.
- New investments for mental health access, research into gun safety technology, and 230 more ATF agents and investigators (an increase of more than 50 percent to the current staff).
The government will also spend money to ensure background checks take less time, and the White House’s news release stated that the ATF is finalizing a rule to require background checks for people trying to buy the most dangerous weapons. Additionally, Obama mentioned he would be directing law enforcement agencies and other parts of government to do what they can without Congress, such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who will finally finalize a rule bridging health record privacy laws and gun sale background checks.
Unsurprisingly, Obama isn’t concerned about the legality of his actions, saying he’s met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey, amongst other law enforcement officials (not to mention taught constitutional law himself).
“The good news is that these are not only recommendations that are well within my legal authority and the executive branch, but they’re also ones that the overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners, support and believe in,” the president said following the meeting in the Oval Office, adding that the proposals were “entirely consistent with the Second Amendment” and the right to bear arms.
“From a Second Amendment perspective, everything he’s proposing is fine,” said Key. “The government can go pretty far in regulating and not running afoul of the Second Amendment. In terms of separation of powers, background check and licensing is in the wheelhouse of what ATF does…But we’ll almost certainly see this case in the Supreme Court.”
According to Key, though District of Columbia v. Heller gave the government a lot of leeway in terms of restricting gun access, an executive order as strong as Obama’s won’t go unnoticed. And so far it hasn’t: Many conservative officials are already vocally opposing Obama’s proposals (not to mention discussing withholding funding for the Department of Justice in protest), who say the President has “never respected the right to safe and legal gun ownership.” It’s just the beginning of the long road these proposals will face, undoubtedly finding themselves in court just like Obama’s immigration reform proposals.
The truth is, gun control is far from a universal desire, let alone one held by the majority of U.S. citizens. Though there are loud calls for some way to prevent the all-to-common reports of shootings, no one can agree on how. Some sources say around 92 percent of the U.S. supports background checks when purchasing guns, but according to a Pew Research report from last summer, it was fairly evenly split, with 50 percent in favor of gun control and 47 percent against.
By contrast, large majorities in both parties continue to favor a way to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally under certain requirements, with about 74 percent of the public agreeing. But even still, Obama’s executive action for immigration reform was stalled as quickly as possible, and will ultimately make it all the way to the Supreme Court. And gun control advocates have even less hard data that their proposals (of which there are many) will make much of a dent at all.
But for Key, this executive order’s chances seem good.
“From a Second Amendment perspective, Heller showed that the government can go pretty far to regulate handguns [without crossing the line],” said Key. “From a separation of power perspective, it could go either way. That being said, we are an increasingly regulatory country, and our administrative agencies have, over time, gotten more and more powerful. The ATF can go pretty far in terms of how they regulate sale and distribution of firearms…as far as tightening up licensing checks, I wouldn’t be shocked if that was upheld.”
But as House Speaker Paul Ryan rightfully points out, these actions would still not be set in stone.
“We will conduct vigilant oversight,” said Ryan in a statement. “His executive order will no doubt be challenged in the courts. Ultimately, everything the president has done can be overturned by a Republican president, which is another reason we must win in November.”
Even still, yesterday’s proposals mark the boldest action on gun control yet, which is exciting, even if its future remains murky. It’s clear that Obama is aiming to tighten up current restrictions in an effort to make them more effective, and he’s dealing with a Congress that seems unwilling to act in this way. It seems at this point that Obama is using his executive order power to gage, and possibly rally, public opinion—even if Congress, SCOTUS, or a new president overturns it before much more than a year has passed.
“That’s the other side of an executive order; while there’s a good bit that the president can do, it can be undone by a subsequent executive. It doesn’t have that same permanence that a new law has,” said Key. “It’s a bold move from a policy perspective—he understands many campaigns are financed in part by the NRA, they have a powerful lobby. He must recognize that it’s going to be pretty hard to go the traditional route of expecting Congress to pass a law.”