Obama considers executive action on gun control: What steps could he take?

After three school shootings in three weeks, the Obama administration is looking at executive orders that would toughen both the sale of and access to guns. Would it work?

Elaine Thompson/AP Photo
President Barack Obama gives a brief wave as he departs Friday, Oct. 9, 2015, at King County Airport in Seattle. Obama was in town to attend a pair of fundraisers, following a stop Roseburg, Ore., where he visited families of victims of the shooting rampage there last week.

Three shootings on college campuses this month, have prompted President Obama to look again at going around Congress and issuing executive orders that would place stricter limits on both the sale and possession of firearms.

This week, there were shootings at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, in which one person was killed and three were injured, and a separate incident at Texas Southern University (TSU) with one fatality and one person injured. Those fatal shootings come on the heels of  the violence at Umpqua Community College (UCC), where Mr. Obama visited the families of victims on Friday.

Immediately following the UCC shooting, which left nine dead and nine others injured,  Obama had expressed his anger regarding the nation’s lax gun laws.

“As I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said in public statements. “It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America.”

Obama has issued over 200 executive orders during his presidency: 147 during his first term, and 72 so far during his second. In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook, Conn., shooting, where 20 children and six adults were killed, the national debate about gun control prompted Obama to issue 23 executive orders dealing with gun sales.

Among many things, they expanded background-check requirements and placed stricter enforcements on the prosecution of violent gun-related crime. However, a notable bill, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 that would have gone beyond Obama’s initial efforts, failed to gain the support from both congressional Republicans and Democrats it would have needed in order to become law.

One of the new executive actions Obama is considering would partially close what is known as the “gun-show loophole,” by defining anyone who sells a certain number of guns - between 50 to 100 - at gun shows or online as a commercial seller. The change in status would require these sellers to perform background checks on potential buyers before they make a sale.

This step, via presidential fiat, was also in Hillary Clinton's gun-control plans announced last week. 

As The Washington Post notes:

The current federal statute dictates that those who are “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms need to obtain a federal license — and, therefore, conduct background checks — but exempts anyone “who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.”

The Post article goes on to say:

Arkadi Gerney, senior vice president at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said tightening the definition of who is “engaged in the business” of selling guns “is a meaningful but modest step towards the goal of ensuring that all gun sales involve a background check.”

National Rifle Association spokeswoman Jennifer Baker, by contrast, said any change was unnecessary and could “ensnare” people not intended to be covered by the law, such as a widow selling off her late husband’s gun collection. “People who repeatedly sell large volumes of firearms are already covered in the current statute because they are already defined as ‘engaged in the business,’ ” she said.

But Obama continues to face criticism from gun-control groups that want him to go around Congress and take executive action.

“We have traveled here from across the nation to challenge you to stop whining about the power you don’t have, and start acting with the power you do have,” said Bishop Douglas Miles, at a news conference in Washington Thursday. Bishop Miles is a leader in the Industrial Areas Foundation's (IAF) national network of interfaith, interracial community organizations.

The IAF wants Obama to put pressure on gun manufacturers, and should have the clout to do so since the US government is a major purchaser of firearms. The IAF wants the gunmakers to self-police the distribution and sale of their guns sold by dealers who consistently sell guns used in crimes, and they want firearms manufacturers to develop new, safer "smart gun" technologies.

While the majority of Americans support expanding background checks, this is a highly charged and complex political issue. Obama got another reminder of that when he traveled to Roseburg, Ore., on Friday to meet with the families of the victims of the UCC shooting, he commented that, “We're going to have to come together as a country, but today is about the families.”

Upon his arrival in the area, he was met with protesters who felt that he was using the visit as a political move. The National Rifle Association also continues to respond with frustration at what they feel are threats to the Second Amendment.  

"This is a super-complicated policy," one administration official familiar with Obama’s proposals told NBC.

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