The wave of mass shootings across the nation has empowered Democrats to speak up and take a stand on the issue of gun control, as their Republican counterparts, aligned with the NRA, have dug in their heels and opposed efforts to address gun violence. Yet, on the heels of his new campaign to fight mass incarceration and push for criminal justice reform, a climate change victory in Paris and the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, President Obama is poised to round out a second term full of accomplishments. And executive orders on gun safety are the icing on the cake.
“These are not only recommendations that are within my legal authority, and the executive branch, but they’re also ones that the overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners support and believe,” said the president on Monday.
“This is not going to solve every violent crime in this country. It’s not going to prevent every mass shooting. It’s not going to keep every gun out of the hands of criminals. It will potentially save lives in this country, and spare families the pain and the extraordinary loss that they’ve suffered.”
In a conference call with reporters, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, joined by White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, outlined the scope and nature of the president’s executive orders and why they are needed. They outlined four areas that the actions will accomplish:
First, the president wants to use background checks to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have them, including cracking down on gun sellers. “No matter where you conduct your business, from a gun store, at a gun show or over the Internet, if you’re in the business of selling arms, you must get a license and conduct background checks,” Jarrett said. “Just because you shop for guns with a mouse and not your feet, doesn’t mean you should be able to avoid background checks.”
The FBI is overhauling its background check system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, and is planning to automate to increase efficiency and effectiveness. Further, Attorney General Lynch has instructed the states on the importance of receiving the complete criminal histories of applicants, including people denied because of domestic violence or mental illness.
“We intend to make the system more efficient to make it and make it more comprehensive,” Lynch said. “The goal is keeping bad actors away from firearms, and also to make it easier for authorities to make sure that the gun laws are properly followed and enforced.”
Second, the Obama administration plans to boost public safety by hiring 200 additional ATF agents and investigators in the FY 2017 budget, supporting a ballistics database, and cracking down on illegal online firearms traffickers.
Third, the president wants to invest $500 million to increase access to mental health care, given that two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. The Social Security Administration will maintain data on beneficiaries who are barred from gun ownership due to mental health reasons. Meanwhile, amid privacy concerns, the Department of Health and Human Services is removing legal barriers preventing states from disclosing information on those prohibited from having a firearm because of mental health issues.
Lastly, the president has directed the Departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security to increase research and development on gun safety technology.
However progressive and thoughtful these efforts by the White House to exert its authority and address a national epidemic, these executive orders are not the end of the story. Ultimately, according to Earnest, Congress must do its part. “Let me just be clear at the outset that the actions the president is announcing today do not in any way absolve Congress of their responsibility to pass legislation that would make our communities safer,” Earnest said. “And you know one classic example of that is closing the loophole that allows those who are on the ‘no fly list’ from being able to purchase a weapon. That is a step that only Congress can take. And it is a commonsense step that the Congress should take, because it would make our communities safer,” he added.
This is not the president’s first initiative on guns. In January 2013, following the Sandy Hook massacre, Obama issued 23 executive actions related to gun safety, followed by two additional actions. The latest news comes as the president prepares to hold a CNN town hall on gun control this Thursday at George Mason University.
The stakes are high, and the carnage is great in the U.S., the only developed nation that sustains such a sustained, consistent level of violence. The White House notes that approximately 30,000 people die from gun violence each year, two-thirds from suicide. And over the last decade, guns have killed 20,000 children, such as Hadiya Pendleton, 15, and Tyshawn Lee, 9, in Chicago. And 4 million people have been victims of crimes involving firearms. But as Jarrett suggested, the people must make their voices heard in order to turn things around.
“We’re not going to be able to achieve full change unless the American people collectively say enough is enough, that we’re not willing to accept this kind of carnage in our communities in our streets, and we can and must do something about it,” she said. “Our politics unite us together when we are taking on other epidemics, so why not gun violence? We’ve spoken to so many gun owners who agree, and don’t believe that the NRA represents their views,” Jarrett added.
Normally, a president in his final year in office typically is referred to as a lame duck. But one would not know it watching President Obama on gun control.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove