Gun Control Failed in Congress. It’s Happening Anyway.

Between Newtown and the Navy Yard, President Obama launched 25 separate initiatives — and there’s little the NRA can do to stop them.

President Obama addressed the Navy Yard shooting before a speech on Monday from the White House.
National Journal
Patrick Reis Matt Vasilogambros
Patrick Reis Matt Vasilogambros
Sept. 17, 2013, 11:44 a.m.

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:

Ex­ec­ut­ive Ac­tions on Gun Vi­ol­ence

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:

Ex­ec­ut­ive Ac­tions on Gun Vi­ol­ence

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