When President Obama took the podium on Tuesday morning (Jan. 5) to talk about guns, it was the first time in a long time that he wasn't facing the nation to lament another horrific mass shooting. Instead, as promised, Obama unveiled his long-awaited executive actions to reform gun laws in the absence of any congressional action.
While the President did not propose an assault weapons ban or try to shut the so-called "gun-show loophole," his multi-layered list of actions, described by many pundits as minor, but crucial, were well-received by gun control advocates (and, of course, slammed by gun rights supporters, Republican presidential candidates and House Speaker Paul Ryan).
Introduced by a father of a victim of the Sandy Hook massacre, Mark Barden, Obama said a conversation with Barden changed him and, he hoped, maybe a nation where 30,000 people die every year as a result of gun violence. He then listed a string of subsequent mass shootings and lamented how we've "become numb" to them, shedding a tear when he thought about the first graders who died at Sandy Hook.
"People are dying and the constant excuses for inaction no longer do, no longer suffice," he said in a measured tone. "That's why we're here today, not to debate the last mass shooting, but to do something to try to prevent the next one."
A one-time constitutional law professor, Obama said he fully understands the scope and importance of the Second Amendment, assuring gun rights advocates that he's not interested in "taking away everybody's guns," but instead in keeping firearms out of the hands of "dangerous people" who are able to purchase guns without proper background checks.
Noting that George W. Bush and the National Rifle Association have supported expanded background checks at various times, he asked, "How did we get here? How did we get to the place where people think requiring a comprehensive background check means taking away people's guns?"
"The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they cannot hold America hostage," he said to loud applause from the room. "Because once Congress gets on board with common sense gun safety measures, we can reduce gun violence a whole lot more. But we also can't wait. Until we have a Congress that's in line with the majority of Americans, there are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence and save more lives."
Among the proposals:
Expanded background checks: While only federally licensed gun dealers are currently required to conduct background checks, the new action will also require anyone who is "engaged in the business" of selling guns to obtain a license or face criminal penalties. The rule applies to online and gun show sales, with even just a handful of transactions triggering the licensing requirement. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is also working on a rule that will require background checks for people trying to buy the "most dangerous weapons and other items through a trust, corporation, or other legal entity."
More FBI staff: The expansion of background checks will be accompanied by the hiring of 230 more FBI agents to conduct them. The agency will also update the National Instant Criminal Background Check system to shorten the response time in alerting local law enforcement when someone who isn't allowed to buy a gun attempts to do so. The proposed upgrades include processing background checks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ATF is also creating an Internet Investigation Center to track illegal online firearms trafficking.
Smart gun tech research: A memorandum asks the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security to conduct research (and help promote) smart gun tech that could help reduce accidental gun discharges and bolster the tracking of lost or stolen guns. A new rule issued by the ATF will also make it clear that a gun dealer shipping a weapon is responsible for alerting law enforcement if that gun goes missing or is lost in transit.
More money for mental health: In an effort to keep weapons out of the hands of mentally ill people, the White House has asked for $500 million in funds to improve mental health care. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has also sent a letter to states asking them to seek a complete criminal history on potential buyers, including information on people disqualified because of mental illness or domestic violence.
'Every Bit Matters,' But Will The New Rules Fly?
While the actions didn't give gun control activists everything they might have wanted, they're a huge move, according to Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America.
"He's doing what Congress hasn't done, which is act," Watts told MTV News. "It's an important signal culturally that this nation is going in a different direction on guns. This is a huge, important way to start off 2016 and we think this will be the year of gun safety."
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-founder of Everytown for Gun Safety also applauded Obama's actions. "President Obama's decision to clarify and enforce the law requiring more gun sellers to conduct background checks is an important victory for public safety and a setback for criminals and gun traffickers," he said in a statement.
Given the staunch resistance from gun rights advocates in Congress, the biggest question is whether the list of Obama's executive actions will pass legal and congressional scrutiny. Congress blocked a 2013 effort by the President to expand background checks at gun shows, with Obama trying to work around that by narrowly interpreting the "engaged in the business" rule for selling guns to include not just gun dealers but also individuals selling guns.
According to the Washington Post, the new proposal clarifies that you "don't need a brick-and-mortar store" to be "engaged" in the business and that there's "no hard number" marking the line between a dealer and an individual gun seller. An expert told the paper that the rule will almost surely "end up in front of a panel at the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia" where the fine line will be debated.
"Potential legal challenges will depend upon how the new regulations are actually worded, but based on what we have heard so far, challengers to the new rules will face an uphill battle because it sounds like the primary thing the President is doing is interpreting an ambiguous federal statute," Steve Vladeck, a professor of law at Washington College of Law at American University, told CNN.
One of the groups with plenty to say about the new rules was the NRA, whose executive director, Chris Cox, sent the following statement to MTV News. "Once again, President Obama has chosen to engage in political rhetoric instead of offering meaningful solutions to our nation’s pressing problems. Today’s event also represents an ongoing attempt to distract attention away from his lack of a coherent strategy to keep the American people safe from terrorist attacks," it read.
The conclusion added, "The proposed executive actions are ripe for abuse by the Obama Administration, which has made no secret of its contempt for the Second Amendment... We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be harassed or intimidated for engaging in lawful, constitutionally-protected activity – nor will we allow them to become scapegoats for President Obama's failed policies."