PRESIDENT OBAMA on Tuesday outlined several modest and useful adjustments to gun-control policy. The modesty of the initiative is no fault of Mr. Obama’s. On the contrary, he acted responsibly in not overstepping the bounds of his legal authority, and the changes that did result from a White House review of what is legally possible are worthwhile. But more fundamental reform must be accomplished by federal and state lawmakers.
Both sides of the fraught debate over guns had an interest in exaggerating the reach of these White House initiatives. The president naturally wants to depict the measures as bold action in the final year of his presidency. Republicans find it advantageous to decry them as a unilateral, unconstitutional abuse of executive power. The response of one official from the National Rifle Association may offer a better gauge: “This is it, really? This is what they’ve been hyping for how long now?”
In clarifying which gun-sellers under existing law are supposed to obtain federal firearms licenses (including those who operate on the Internet), the government aims to expand the number of gun buyers who are subject to criminal background checks. Also commendable are plans to encourage gun-safety research, improve the FBI background-check system by hiring more people and modernizing technology, and improve access to mental-health care. Mr. Obama also took steps that could encourage the development of “smart gun technology,” which could hasten the day in which gun triggers respond only to designated users, thus reducing the chances of accidental and criminal use.
Improvements in background checks and mental-health care will depend on the willingness of the Republican-led Congress to appropriate necessary funds. Republicans deflect calls for gun control with the argument that mental health, not weaponry, is the unaddressed problem and root cause of violence; let’s see if they will back up that rhetoric with appropriations. They should likewise welcome improvements to the operation of background checks that would better screen out bad actors while making it easier and faster for law-abiding citizens to get guns.
But we aren’t holding our breath. As Mr. Obama observed Tuesday, the issue of guns has become one of the country’s most polarized, partisan debates. “How did we get here?” he asked ruefully. Tears streamed down his face as he remembered the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The steps being taken by his administration move the country in the right direction, but in a rational world they would represent just the beginning of sensible reform.
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