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Obama and gun control: What actions could he take on his own?

With opposition in Congress to renewing a ban on assault weapons, the White House sees advantages to using executive powers to signal progress on gun control. But Obama would need Congress to achieve some likely goals.

By Staff writer / January 15, 2013

President Obama gestures during the last news conference of his first term, in the East Room of the White House on Monday. Responding to a question on gun control, he said: 'I'm confident that there are some steps that we can take that don't require legislation and that are within my authority as president.'

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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At his news conference Monday President Obama said he’s considering using his executive powers to order up some new gun-control measures. What sorts of things could he do on the gun issue on his own?

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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Facing powerful opposition to sweeping gun regulations, President Barack Obama will unveil his proposals Wednesday, barely over a month since the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (Jan. 15)

Well, he won’t be instituting sweeping edicts such as a ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. Those would require congressional legislation, which he’s also vowed to push for. What Mr. Obama can do is issue executive orders based on his constitutional authority or existing statutes. Generally, this sort of executive action deals with government officials or agencies, according to a 2010 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on the subject.

Executive orders “usually affect private individuals only indirectly,” according to CRS.

Thus one thing Obama might do is tighten the existing background check system meant to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, according to a list of possible executive actions compiled by the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP).

Obama could penalize states that don’t provide data on disqualified gun purchasers to the federal government, for instance. He could order federal agencies themselves to do a better job of telling the FBI about individuals that by law may not be qualified to own firearms. He could direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to conduct background checks on the employees of federally licensed gun dealers as part of its existing audit program.

The president might have the power to require broader reporting of multiple sales of assault rifles to particular individuals, according to CAP. He could also order the FBI to absorb the ATF. “In recent years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has become a beleaguered agency that is unable to adequately fulfill its mission to oversee and enforce federal firearms laws,” claims the CAP.

Other actions the president might take include further limits on gun imports, and increased funding for research into the nature and effects of gun violence.

The reasons the White House might see the executive action route as attractive are obvious. Congressional action is uncertain, and there is substantial opposition, even among some Democrats, to banning whole weapon classes such as assault rifles. Executive action could allow Obama to trumpet some progress on gun control at a time when the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., are high in public thought. Yet such action would require little political capital on his part and would not distract from his efforts on something voters still say is their top priority – keeping the economy on track.

Meanwhile, Obama’s political adversaries are on watch, lest he overreach. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina has warned that executive orders in this area might constitute a “power grab.”

“The Obama administration better tread lightly on the issue of using Executive Orders to implement gun control measures,” tweeted Senator Graham earlier this month.

Rep. Steve Stockman (R) of Texas has gone even further. In a statement Monday, Representative Stockman called Obama’s possible moves “an unconstitutional and unconscionable attack on the very founding principles of this republic” and threatened to file articles of impeachment to stop the actions.

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