In response to the latest mass shooting during his presidency, President Obama is seriously considering circumventing Congress with his executive authority and imposing new background-check requirements for buyers who purchase weapons from high-volume gun dealers.
Under the proposed rule change, dealers who exceed a certain number of sales each year would be required to obtain a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and perform background checks on potential buyers.
As the president heads to Roseburg, Ore., on Friday to comfort the survivors and families of those killed in last week’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, the political calculus around his most vexing domestic policy issue is shifting once again.
After the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., claimed the lives of 20 students and six staff members, Obama asked Vice President Biden to devise a list of policy proposals in response, and on Jan. 26, 2013, the president announced 23 executive actions ranging from restarting federal research into the causes of gun violence to providing parity for mental health coverage under private insurance plans. He pushed for legislation mandating universal background checks on gun sales, an effort that failed in the Senate in April 2013. In August that year, Obama closed two gun-sale loopholes through executive authority, subjecting gun purchases by corporations and trusts to background checks and banning almost all re-imports of military surplus firearms to private entities.
In the wake of last week’s tragedy, Obama said he had asked his team “to scrub what kinds of authorities do we have to enforce the laws that we have in place more effectively to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”
“We are hopeful we can find a way to do this,” said one senior administration official, who noted that lawyers were still working through details to ensure that the rule could pass legal muster. “It’s a lot more clear today than it was a year ago how to work this out.”
Nine days before a shooter opened fire on the Umpqua Community College campus, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, Mark Kelly, were at the White House to reiterate a long-standing request that those private dealers who sell a sizable number of guns conduct background checks on buyers. The proposed rule change would clarify what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms.
In a meeting with Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Giffords and Kelly, who became gun-control activists after Giffords was seriously wounded in a mass shooting in 2011, were pushing for a regulatory change that administration officials considered — but then shelved — nearly two years ago.
The proposed executive action aims to impose background checks on individuals who buy from dealers who sell a significant number of guns each year. The current federal statute dictates that those who are “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms need to obtain a federal license — and, therefore, conduct background checks — but exempts anyone “who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.”
White House officials drafted the proposal in late 2013 to apply to those dealers who sell at least 50 guns annually, after Congress had rejected legislation that would have expanded background checks more broadly to private sellers. While the White House Office of Legal Counsel and then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. initially concluded the regulation was legally defensible, according to several individuals involved in the discussions, some federal lawyers remained concerned that setting an arbitrary numerical threshold could leave the rule vulnerable to a challenge.
ATF officials, moreover, objected that it would be hard to enforce and that it was unclear how many sellers would be affected by the change. “Everyone realized it would be hugely politically controversial,” said one individual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions.
On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listed the idea of changing the definition of who qualifies as a gun dealer as one of her top proposals to address gun violence.
The aides to Biden who worked most intently on the background-checks proposal in 2013 have since left the administration, but it has resurfaced periodically: Obama discussed the idea with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch during a July 9 Oval Office meeting, aides said, three weeks after nine African American parishioners were gunned down in Charleston, S.C. Now, according to administration officials, a group of West Wing staffers are working in concert on this and other possible executive actions.
Pia Carusone, a senior adviser at Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group Giffords and Kelly founded, declined to discuss details surrounding private White House meetings.
“Over the last few years, Gabby, Mark and ARS staff have met with various administration officials to discuss how we can work together to address America’s gun violence problem,” Carusone said by e-mail. “Many potential solutions have been discussed in conversations that have included the president, vice president and their teams.”
Arkadi Gerney, senior vice president at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said tightening the definition of who is “engaged in the business” of selling guns “is a meaningful but modest step towards the goal of ensuring that all gun sales involve a background check.”
National Rifle Association spokeswoman Jennifer Baker, by contrast, said any change was unnecessary and could “ensnare” people not intended to be covered by the law, such as a widow selling off her late husband’s gun collection. “People who repeatedly sell large volumes of firearms are already covered in the current statute because they are already defined as ‘engaged in the business,’ ” she said.
Some activists, including those from the faith and community organizing group Metro Industrial Areas Foundation say Obama could be much bolder with his executive authority. On Thursday, the group, which is pushing the president to leverage the federal government’s purchasing power with gun manufacturers, held a rally in Lafayette Square to demand Obama call in industry leaders and insist that they develop safer technology and crack down on the stores that sell a disproportionate number of guns used in crimes.
“We have traveled here from across the nation to challenge you to stop whining about the power you don’t have, and start acting with the power you do have,” said Bishop Douglas Miles, who is on the group’s leadership team and serves as pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore.
Last week, Obama said that “this is something we should politicize” and that every American had “to for a while, be a single-issue voter” when it came to tightening the nation’s gun laws.
Gun-control activists have made significant political headway on the state level since the Newtown shooting. In the past year, they prevailed on background check fights in Washington state and Oregon; laws to carry concealed weapons without a permit were enacted in three states but defeated in 15. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 55 percent of gun laws enacted so far this year loosened restrictions rather than tightened them, and many were quite minor. In 2012, by contrast, 72 percent of all enacted gun laws loosened restrictions.
“The gun lobby has done a very good job of tying up Washington, D.C.,” said John Feinblatt, president of the advocacy group Everytown. “It can’t tie up the people, and cannot, in fact, tie up state legislatures.”
While polling shows between 85 and 92 percent of Americans support expanding background checks, the broader issue of gun rights remains fraught. In Roseburg, where many have chafed at the administration’s gun policies, opinion remains sharply divided over whether Obama should even come to offer his condolences to victims’ families.
“Half the people in Roseburg say it’s wonderful, the other half say he shouldn’t show up,” said Earl Skonberg, a local gun owner who engages in sport shooting.