President Obama is getting a lot of flack from Republicans for his unilateral actions to curb gun violence. But when you dig into what he actually proposed, his ideas are pretty modest. Stephen Colbert went so far during Wednesday night's show as to say Obama was "doing something by doing nothing."
For example, his centerpiece proposal to expand background checks isn't a new regulation. He's simply clarifying who is a gun seller, which would require more people who do sales at gun shows and on the Internet to be licensed — and therefore have to conduct background checks — report The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin and David Nakamura. He's basically reinforcing and tightening existing federal law.
But he's facing charges from Republicans in Congress and GOP presidential candidates that he has overstepped his bounds. He's "liberal and divisive." He "wants your guns." Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), himself a former presidential candidate, has asked his attorney general to look into suing Obama for his executive actions on guns.
So why is the president spending so much political capital to move the ball on guns so little? Well, for one, Obama doesn't need to save any political capital; he's out of Washington in a year. "I’m not on the ballot again. I’m not looking to score some points,” he said in his emotional speech announcing the measures Tuesday.
But you could also argue that Obama's end game isn't to change things at the federal level, where gun control is dead on arrival in a Republican-controlled Congress; it's to motivate governors and state lawmakers to do something at the state level, where most of the action on guns is anyway.
And so far, that strategy appears to be working. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed an executive order the day after Obama's speech to start a new public health program on suicide prevention and to help government agencies share data on guns. (Washington state already expanded background checks in 2014 via a ballot measure.) The Associated Press reports Inslee appears to be the first governor since Obama announced his executive actions to move on gun control.
But more could soon follow.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) recently called for legislation in the new state legislative session to address gun violence. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has made gun control a top priority. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) said he'd try to go it alone and block people in his state on the no-fly list from being able to get guns.
That Obama is taking action, no matter how small, to try to curb gun violence at the national level no doubt encourages governors to do it, too. If Obama's willing to stick his neck out, it makes it easier for others to follow suit.
Guns will be a major issue in statehouses around the country this year, too, with lawmakers expecting to vote to both limit and expand access to them. And in Nevada, there will be a hotly contested ballot initiative to expand background checks in the state.
Obama undoubtedly knew all of this when he decided to take a political beating for policies that, by his own admission, won't save everyone from gun violence. But changing things at the federal level might not really be Obama's goal here. And so far, what's happening in the states — including some swing states — suggests he's making some progress.