President Obama discussing executive actions on guns Tuesday. Photo via WhiteHouse.gov
This story was co-published with the Marshall Project.
Stymied by Congress and determined to do something to reduce gun violence, President Obama announced Tuesday a slate of new "executive actions" on the issue, which he has made a priority of his dwindling presidency.
Sound familiar? That's because Obama already tried to take many of these actions—three years ago.
Back in January of 2013, after the Newtown school massacre, the president unveiled 23 executive actions (and a dozen proposals for legislation), covering everything from closing loopholes in background checks to investing in "smart gun" technology to promoting research on gun violence—all of which he is attempting again this week.
A look back at how his 2013 initiatives have fared offers some clues to what we can expect this time around: not very much. Some of his original actions were blocked in Congress, where enthusiasm for the Second Amendment is undiminished. A few are just now, three years later, nearing implementation—and likely to be reversed if a Republican wins the White House. Some were more exhortations than actions.
"Most of the president's actions [three years ago] were small-bore, basically a punch-list of things he wanted to press ahead with, like 'maximize enforcement of gun crime,' and 'launch a national dialogue on mental health,'" says Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at SUNY Cortland and an expert on gun control and the presidency. "What he's releasing this week builds on the ones from 2013 and will hopefully be more substantive."
Here's a rundown of then and now.
What President Obama is doing this week that he actually did already in 2013:
Closing the "gun trust loophole"
President Obama is getting attention this week for acting to close the "gun trust loophole" through which felons, domestic abusers, people with mental illnesses, and other "prohibited buyers" of guns can purchase assault weapons by registering them to a "trust" or "corporation," thereby avoiding a background check.
The president already took this action—three years ago.
As part of his suite of executive actions from 2013, Obama proposed a rule that would require individuals associated with corporations to go through background checks just like anyone else. It is being finalized, and implemented, this week.
Closing the HIPAA loophole
The Obama administration is also taking executive action this week to make sure that states report those "prohibited buyers," including the mentally ill, to the federal database (NICS) that is used for background checks. One goal of this action is to reassure states that reporting individuals with mental health problems is not a violation of the privacy rights enshrined in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. This, too, was originally proposed in 2013 and is only now set for implementation.
Investing in "smart gun" technology
The administration is announcing new research and development of "smart gun" technology—personalized guns that can only be fired by their legal owner—to be carried out by the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice. No dollar amount was mentioned.
This is a continuation of Obama's order in 2013 that the Department of Justice conduct research on the availability of (and that the private sector develop) such a technology.
Back in 2013, Obama issued a "memorandum" (essentially an executive order by another name) instructing federal agencies like the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to be more consistent about reporting information to NICS, the database used for background checks. According to the White House, such reporting improved dramatically after Obama's action: in the first nine months alone, agencies made 1.2 million additional records available to NICS, identifying hundreds of people who should be prohibited from getting a license to buy guns.
The Obama administration in 2013 also offered incentives, totaling over $20 million, to states that shared more information with the system. By the end of that year, according to The Trace, these grants had generated an 800 percent increase in reporting—but most of that reporting was done by only 12 states, while many of the other 38 have continued to share little or no information.
The administration, this week, is attempting to expand on those efforts by revamping the database, hiring over 200 new FBI agents to operate it, and making further exhortations that states should report information.
What President Obama tried to do in 2013 that collided with Congress:
Encouraging research on gun violence
In perhaps his most ambitious action in 2013, President Obama instructed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to resume its long-dormant research on gun violence—a nice idea that has since gone up in smoke, thanks to Congress.
For two decades, pro-gun lawmakers on Capitol Hill have threatened to de-fund the CDC for pursuing any research on gun violence. As a result, little is known about whether background checks prevent violence; whether and how often law-abiding citizens use guns to protect themselves; and whether, if at all, video games contribute to school shootings.
Obama's executive action was meant to rejuvenate such research, and, for a moment, it appeared to have been successful. The CDC sponsored a report on everything it would like to study, if allowed. But then the CDC conducted...no new research, apparently out of a lingering fear of Congress. And only one week after the Charleston shooting, Republicans in the House of Representatives rejected an amendment that would have allowed funding of CDC research.
Tracking of lost or stolen guns
In 2013, the Obama administration took a first step toward compiling a central record of lost and stolen guns. The Department of Justice issued a report tallying 190,342 firearms that had been lost by or stolen nationwide, of which 16,677 were reported missing by gun dealers—all in 2012 alone.
Yet neither the executive action taken three years ago nor today's renewed push ( to track guns lost or stolen in transit) will result in a complete tally of lost and stolen guns. That is because dealers are exempt. Congress, in an amendment introduced in 2003 by Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KA) and permanently enacted into law in 2013, has barred the Department of Justice from compelling dealers to keep an accurate, complete inventory of their stock. Some dealers take advantage of this loophole by pretending that inventory is missing when it has actually been sold off the books.
Nominating an ATF director
When Obama issued this executive action in 2013, there had not been a director of the ATF for seven years due to the stalling of Congress. After he issued it, the Senate finally confirmed his nominee, B. Todd Jones.
But Jones resigned in March of 2015, and the job—one of the most crucial in America's battle against gun violence —remains unfilled.
What President Obama did in 2013 that has been partially successful:
President Obama also took action in 2013 to make sure that health insurance policies—including Medicaid and other insurance plans acquired through the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare—would cover mental health care, not just medical and surgical care. This is called "parity": the notion that mental health treatment ought to be covered in the same way as a surgery or doctor's appointment.
At Obama's request, the Department of Justice in 2013 provided incentives—in the form of grants—to jurisdictions that hired "school resource officers," otherwise known as school cops. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder soon announced nearly $45 million in funding for hiring such officers.
From webinars and training on "active shooter preparedness" to a new FBI website on how to prepare and respond to shootings to workshops and new handbooks distributed to first responders across the nation, the Department of Homeland Security is most definitely taking this part of Obama's 2013 executive actions seriously.
Fighting gun crime
"Tracing" guns—identifying where a gun was purchased and by whom, where it traveled to and who possessed it when—helps law enforcement solve cases and understand larger patterns in gun trafficking. With this action in 2013, Obama instructed federal agencies to trace all guns recovered during investigations.
Meanwhile, in many cases, the police must return to the rightful owner any guns they seize during an investigation. So Obama in 2013 also created a new rule allowing law enforcement to run a background check before returning a gun to someone.
As per Obama's order from 2013, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled several defective locks, safes, and other accessories, hopefully making the storage of guns safer.
What President Obama did in 2013 that was largely symbolic:
The Obama administration in 2013 published a letter instructing licensed gun dealers around the nation to help private individuals run background checks before selling guns. Whether it convinced any dealers to change their practices, or made anyone any more likely to run a check before making a buck, is dubious at best.
Obama also sent a letter to healthcare providers informing them that they can, and should, tell the police if one of their patients has threatened violence—another minor step.
The Department of Justice, meanwhile, spent a modest $1 million on public service announcements directed at gun owners, explaining how to safely lock up their guns, report any missing or stolen guns, and more.
And in response to the president's order that his cabinet "launch a national dialogue on mental health," there was a conference, and there was, indeed, a dialogue.
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.