In a speech to the Urban League in New Orleans on Wednesday, President Obama decried daily urban gun violence—equal in toll, he said, to an Aurora, Colo., mass shooting every day—but he glossed over what gun-control advocates say is his own record of failing to use existing executive power to tighten access to the deadliest firearms.
“There’s talk of new reforms, and there’s talk of new legislation,” Obama told the Urban League, setting the table for a “don’t-blame-me-blame-Congress” explanation for policy drift. “And, too often, those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention elsewhere.”
Gun-control proponents and dozens of congressional Democrats vehemently disagree. Although Obama can’t take action that would have prevented the Batman movie shootings, the president has all the power he needs right now—as well as a precedent set by a Republican predecessor—to crack down on some assault-weapon sales. And Obama, despite three years of pleas from these Democrats, is not using it.
The president could make three moves:
1. Allow law-enforcement agencies to confiscate more assault weapons like the AR-15 rifle used in the Aurora shootings by reinstituting a tighter definition of “sporting purposes” when inspecting assault weapons for import. President George H.W. Bush did this in 1989 to ban the import of assault weapons, using powers under the Gun Control Act of 1968, which stipulated that legal rifles had to be “suitable for sporting purposes.” Bush acted after a serial criminal killed five schoolchildren and wounded 29 others with an AK-47 assault rifle on Jan. 27, 1989, in Stockton, Calif.
President Clinton expanded that action with a second executive order in 1998 banning firearm imports and ammunition from China. The elder Bush watched his son, President George W. Bush, preside over the persistent watering down of the “sporting purposes” filter to block assault-weapons imports—a policy Obama has perpetuated. Fifty-three members of Congress wrote Obama on Feb. 12, 2009, urging him to tighten the ban on assault-weapon imports. Obama has ignored such requests.
“This continues to be a problem,” said Dennis Henigan, vice president for law and policy at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Something happened under the second Bush administration, and that has essentially continued under Obama.”
2. Expand Obama’s new requirement issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives that gun shops in border states report customers who purchase two or more domestically made assault weapons within five business days. The courts have upheld the reporting requirement, and it could be expanded nationwide without congressional action. Gun-control advocates credit Obama for taking the initial step on tracking multiple sales in border states (where Mexican cartel violence has risen), but a national system could help make multiple assault-weapon purchases more visible and traceable.
3. Toughen licensing requirements on gun dealers to secure their inventories. Advocates say that Obama could easily take three basic steps: Require dealers to better secure firearms from possible theft, mandate background checks of gun-shop employees, and eliminate the “fire sale” loophole that allows gun dealers who have had their licenses revoked to sell off their inventory without compulsory background checks on those sales. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., has written to Obama asking for this administrative-enforcement change. Obama already has used some executive power to expand the reach of criminal background checks for firearm purchases, which he touted in New Orleans, calling them “more thorough and complete.”
The National Rifle Association declined to comment on the use of presidential authority on gun control or on whether the organization would object to the exercise of any of the executive powers that advocates say Obama has but doesn’t use. In these specific and untapped areas of executive clout and gun control, the record is clear: Democrats have complained about the president’s inaction, while the NRA, given the opportunity to complain, has said nothing.
Moreover, Obama has proven again and again in an election year that he can find executive means to sidestep Congress. He did so on the so-called Dream Act by ordering an end to arrests of young immigrants brought to America illegally by their parents and granting two-year permits to those already in deportation proceedings. Obama has also heeded calls from GOP governors to waive certain work requirements under the 1996 welfare-reform law, even though some congressional Republicans accuse him of “gutting” the law’s goal of moving people from welfare to work. The president has also used executive power to lift the insurance mandate for those who qualify for expanded Medicaid coverage under his new health care law but live in states where the governor won’t accept expanded federal Medicaid financing.
Obama is no stranger to dipping deep into the murky waters of executive powers and finding ways to achieve policy goals that Congress has thwarted. Proponents of gun control say that the president has crystal clear and uncontested powers—some used by an NRA card-carrying GOP president (Bush resigned from the group in 1995)—to deal with assault weapons.
Yet the White House remains stonily silent on Obama’s intentions even to reevaluate whether to exercise these powers. In the Big Easy, he made it sound as if gun control is always hard. It most definitely can be. But there are actions Obama can easily take, and what’s hard for Democrats and gun-control advocates to figure out is why he won’t.
This article appears in the July 28, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.