Gun-control legislation failed loudly following the Newtown school shooting, but that has not stopped President Obama from leaving Congress behind to launch a broad gun-control campaign of his own.
Between the December 2012 massacre and the Navy Yard mass shooting Monday, Obama has taken 25 separate gun-control initiatives, all of which came from executive actions that did not require congressional authorization.
The president's highest-profile move was to nominate and get confirmed Todd Jones as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, filling a seat that had sat empty for more than six years. But Obama has also initiated a series of quieter initiatives, including new rules to keep guns away from felons, better coordinate mental-illness screenings, and better preparing local law enforcement and schools to respond to shootings.
The White House readily admits its actions alone cannot solve the nation's epidemic of gun violence, but given that an expanded-background-check bill stalled in the Senate in April, the executive orders are—for now—Obama's only available option.
"Even without Congress, my administration will keep doing everything it can to protect more of our communities," a visibly angry Obama said after the bill fell six votes shy of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.
For Obama, the actions' main advantage is that they cannot be blocked by the powerful gun lobby—including the National Rifle Association—that successfully stymied the president's legislative push. Down the line, the rules could be changed by a subsequent administration, or Congress could hamper their efficacy by at some point cutting the funding to enforce them. But, for now at least, Obama can move forward without waiting for anyone else's permission.
Most of Obama's orders are aimed at reducing administrative weaknesses that complicate the enforcement of existing gun laws, said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
It will be years, however, before anyone knows whether these policies have any measurable effect in reducing gun violence, Hudak said. "Because these policies were either launched in January or the conversation about them was launched in January, we certainly don't have any evidence about their effectiveness one way or another," he said.
And regardless of successful they are, the power of these initiatives to curb gun violence pales in comparison to what congressional action could accomplish, Hudak said. "These are piecemeal changes, some of them are ceremonial. There's only so much he can do without Congress. The president's hands are quite tied."
And so, even as Obama has pursued his own reforms, his administration has continually demanded action from Congress. That continued Tuesday, when—in his comments on the Navy Yard mass murder in Washington—White House press secretary Jay Carney lashed out at Republicans for blocking the background check bill in April.
"The problem here is not Democrats," Carney said, when pressed by reporters on the number of mass shootings in Obama's presidency. "The problem here is senators, overwhelmingly from one party, who refuse to do something very simple, which is expand the background-check system that everyone believes functions well but needs to function better. It's their choice."
Five Democrats voted against the bill in April, although one of those was Majority Leader Harry Reid, who supported the measure but voted against it for procedural reasons that would allow him to bring it to the Senate floor again.
Four Republicans voted for the measure, while 42 voted against it.
Felons, Gun Imports, and Mental Health
Of the administration's 25 actions, two were launched in August, including one that closes a loophole that doesn't require background checks for weapons registered under a trust or corporation. Therefore, the administration argues, felons, or domestic abusers can easily gain access to these weapons. In the last year, the ATF has received more than 39,000 of these requests, and though many of those were likely for legitimate corporations, the loophole provides felons a window for obtaining firearms they wouldn't have otherwise, Hudak said. The White House is currently working on a proposed version of the new rules, which would then be subject to public comment and resubmitted as a final rule.
The White House has also put in place a policy to deny requests to bring American military-grade firearms to the U.S. from other countries, with the exception of museums. Since 2005, the United States has authorized more than 250,000 of these weapons to come into the country. This new policy, which the administration says will help keep these guns off the streets, has been implemented. Both of these executive actions were announced in August.
In total, the administration has moved on or finished 24 of the 25 executive actions. The only one that is pending is a rule that would make group health care plans offer mental-health benefits at parity with other medical and surgical benefits. The administration is expected to finalize this rule later this year.
Here are the original 23 executive actions: