Hillary Clinton gun plan: Is it feasible?

Hillary Clinton said on Monday that if elected, she would use executive action to expand background checks for gun purchases. It could be a demonstration of how to circumvent Congress by using assertive presidential power.

Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton holds a town hall meeting at the Manchester Community College on October 5, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Clinton spoke about the need for gun control on the wake of a mass shooting at another community college in Oregon.

Hillary Clinton’s new gun control proposal might do more than tighten restrictions on firearm sales. It could also be a demonstration of how to circumvent Congress by using assertive presidential power.

That’s because Mrs. Clinton said on Monday that if elected, she would use executive action to expand background checks for gun purchases. Under current federal law, such checks are required for sales through licensed gun stores, but not for private party sales, sometimes made at gun shows or over the Internet.

“If Congress refuses to act to end this epidemic of gun violence, I’ll take administration action to do so,” tweeted Clinton after announcing her plan at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire.

Gun control and gun rights issues have long been among the most emotional and contentious items on Washington’s agenda.

Anti-gun advocates are frustrated that mass shootings such as last week’s tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., don’t lead to political action tightening gun access. Gun rights advocates say there is no evidence most proposals would halt such shootings – and that tighter gun controls could lead to firearms registration or more drastic government action that impinges on Second Amendment gun ownership rights.

In a Congress already polarized between the parties, that sort of argument inevitably produces gridlock of the first order. Clinton, as a longtime proponent of gun controls, is looking for a way around that legislative jam.

Not incidentally, the former secretary of State is also looking for a way to stand out politically on guns. That applies to her primary fight against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as well as a possible general election campaign against a GOP nominee. Guns are one issue on which Clinton is well to the left of Senator Sanders.

Unmarried women, African-Americans, and Hispanics – all core Democratic constituencies – have among the lowest rates of gun ownership in America. Only 13 percent of non-married women own firearms, for example, wrote Cook Political Report national editor Amy Walter in 2013.

“[T]he political profile of a ... non-gun owner looks a lot like a Democratic voter,” Ms. Walter wrote.

Clinton’s proposal to use the power of the presidency to move the gun issue may thus be an attempt to cement her appeal to her base, while undercutting Sanders.

As to substance, the executive action that Clinton is pushing would redefine any private party who sells a significant number of guns as being “in the business” of retailing firearms. That would put them on the same legal footing as gun stores, notes Clinton’s white paper on the subject.

Right now, private parties can sell guns to in-state customers who they have no reason to believe aren’t eligible for gun ownership without conducting a background check. Many of these sales occur at or near gun shows, or over the Internet. They’ve long been a target of gun control groups.

Clinton’s plan would also close the so-called Charleston loophole, which allows a gun sale to proceed without a background check if that federal check isn’t completed in three days. More than 2,500 gun purchases that otherwise would have been prohibited were completed last year because of this loophole, according to the Clinton campaign. This move would require congressional legislation, however, which makes it much less likely to occur.

Clinton also wants to repeal the law that bans crime victims from suing gun manufacturers – another item that would require legislative action.

One final point on Clinton’s background check proposal: If it’s really that easy, why hasn’t the current Democratic president done it? President Obama has not been shy about pushing the boundaries of executive branch power in the area of immigration, after all. And he's previously taken executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence. One would think he would be eager to unilaterally redefine active private-party sellers as gun dealers.

“Is Obama, who has been visibly frustrated by government inaction, thinking of undertaking such an executive action?” writes left-leaning Greg Sargent on his "Plum Line" blog at The Washington Post. “Will Clinton’s public vow to undertake such action raise the pressure on the administration to do the same?”

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