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Obama's Executive Action May Actually Have Little Impact on Gun Violence

Obama unveiled his highly-anticipated gun control measures in an emotional speech today but experts are skeptical whether it will have a substantial impact on gun deaths.
January 5, 2016, 5:45pm
Photo by Michael Reynolds/EPA

With tears visibly streaming down his face, President Barack Obama unveiled his executive action on gun control today in an effort to cut down on what he called the "epidemic of gun violence" that kills approximately 33,000 Americans every year.

"People are dying," Obama said Tuesday morning, standing next to victims of gun violence in the White House, during his emotional address. "And the constant excuses for inaction no longer do, no longer suffice."

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Obama's announcement today is the latest component in his administration's highly publicized push for increased gun control in recent weeks. The White House published a fact sheet Monday detailing the measures, which have been met with support from anti-gun violence advocates and criticism from Republican presidential candidates.

But despite all the fanfare, experts are skeptical whether Obama's executive order will bring about immediate, sweeping change.

"He's done what the Administration can do," says Liz Avore, the legal director for Everytown for Gun Safety, a pro-gun control group founded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. "But there is a lot more to be done [to reduce gun violence] and we need to look toward state and federal legislatures to take that action."

The biggest component of Obama's executive order is the expansion of background checks by clarifying the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' definition for a federally licensed firearm dealer. Current law vaguely defines a dealer as anyone who is "engaged in the business" of selling guns as the "principal objective of livelihood and profit." This is opposed to non-licensed sellers who just make "occasional sales…for a hobby." Unlike official, licensed dealers, these hobbyists are not required to undergo background checks or register with the government, which creates loopholes that allows for the unregulated transfer of firearms through online sales or at gun shows.

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The White House is seeking to close that loophole by expanding the definition of what it means to be "engaged in the business" — this will now include anyone who is selling a gun professionally, whether that's one per year at a flea market or a major manufacturer online.

It is worth noting however, that when federal background checks are required, they almost never get denied. Approximately 99 percent of background checks were approved last year, according to FBI data and since 1998, the FBI has only rejected .56 percent of all background check applications.

Obama is also looking to go after the murky online gun market. Indeed, some of the most infamous mass shootings in recent memory were committed with weapons bought on the internet, such as the 2012 massacre in Aurora, Colorado, by a gunman who killed 12 people using a stockpile of ammunition and ballistic gear he bought legally from sites like BulkAmmo.com.

"Right now it's really an Internet loophole," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on Monday. "Gun sales are moving online."

Additional measures in Obama's plan include allocating increased funding for research on reducing gun violence, promoting safer gun technology, streamlining the process of mental health reporting, and hiring additional staff to improve the background check process, according to the White House's fact sheet.

But Obama's executive action requiring background checks will not touch the millions of guns that change hands each year between unlicensed buyers and sellers who are not "engaged in the business," points out Avore. The order will target what Everytown identifies as "high-volume unlicensed sellers," which operate as de facto dealers by selling large quantities of guns online and, until now, were able to take advantage of the ambiguity in the law and sell guns without being not subject to background checks.

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"The [background check] system works, but the problem is that it only applies to these licensed gun dealers," says Avore. "Which means that if you're a felon and you're trying to get a gun, you [can] still just go online and find an unlicensed dealer in your neighborhood."

A November report from Everytown further outlined the limits of the vague definition for a federally licensed firearm dealer. "Some unlicensed sellers take advantage of this ambiguity to offer tens or hundreds of guns for sale each year, tapping into the lucrative firearms market without following the rules," the report states. "They sell guns without background checks, [and] some of those guns are later trafficked across states lines, recovered at crime scenes in major cities, and used against police officers."

David Kopel, a researcher at the Independence Institute and expert on background check laws, agreed that Obama's executive order is probably not going to have a major effect on gun violence, at least right away.

"Criminals overwhelmingly obtain their guns from friends and acquaintances," Kopel points out. "Not from retail transactions of any type."

If Obama's changes are not quite as sweeping as the White House's lengthy rollout hyped it up to be, it's not for lack of trying. Obama pushed for a set of much stronger gun regulations in 2013, in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, mass shooting, but they failed to get through Congress. Using executive action to move on gun control may get around Republican lawmakers, but it comes with substantial legal limits, which Obama and Lynch made clear he was obeying yesterday in a preliminary press conference in the Oval Office. As Kopel points out, the US Constitution only grants the power of lawmaking to Congress, not the President whenever he feels like it (he is already facing a legal battle in the Supreme Court over his executive action on immigration). Obama can make recommendations and redefinitions to federal departments, like the ATF, but he cannot go much further.

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"This is it, really?" asked Jennifer Baker, a spokesperson with the National Rifle Association, told the New York Times. "This is what they've been hyping for how long now? This is the proposal they've spent seven years putting together? They're not really doing anything."

Still, Obama's push on gun control makes political sense because it detracts from other issues he'd rather not talk about in his final year in office, according to Kopel. In other words, "every day we're talking about gun control is a day we're not talking about ISIS, and that's a good day for him."

Obama's prioritization of gun control also makes political sense because the vast majority of Americans actually agree with him. According to a Quinnipiac poll from December, 89 percent of Americans said they support universal background checks on guns sold online or at gun shows, including 87 percent of Republicans. Quinnipiac has found this overwhelming level of support for background checks has stayed consistent in the three years since the Newtown massacre. And fully 73 percent of likely 2016 voters said they support an executive action by Obama to close gun seller loopholes, according to a survey from former Congresswoman Gabby Gifford's gun violence prevention group.

Obama himself addressed the skepticism Tuesday. "Each time, we're told that commonsense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that. So why bother trying?" he said. "I reject that thinking. We know we can't stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we can try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence."

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928