President Obama’s decision to take executive action on guns kicked up a political ruckus on Tuesday, but don’t let that fool you: This is much ado about not very much. Mr. Obama deserves credit for doing what little he can on his own to confront rampant gun violence, given Congress’ abysmal failure to do anything whatsoever. The sad fact, however, is that the president’s unilateral authority over control of firearms leaves little room for effective action.
The howls of protests from some arms enthusiasts notwithstanding, nothing announced by a tearful President Obama on Tuesday will change any laws or restrict the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
▪ It will not close the loophole that has allowed millions of guns to be purchased without criminal background checks at gun shows and in online bazaars.
▪ It does not expand the law in any way because that would require approval from Congress, and that’s not going to happen anytime soon. If the horror of schoolchildren massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 failed to stir lawmakers into taking some common-sense action, we can’t imagine what would.
▪ Even the addition of 200 ATF agents to enforce existing laws — the most salient aspect of the president’s executive action — is not, alas, a very big deal. The president’s action would require a far larger number of agents within the Justice Department agency to produce a real change in sales and firearms transfers, given the number of gun shows and other loopholes. Mr. Obama will ask Congress for this manpower increase for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — a number frozen for decades — but Congress is unlikely to comply.
This is not to say the president’s actions don’t matter. Any change for the better is welcome, and that applies to the president’s decision to “clarify” that some gun sellers calling themselves “hobbyists” — whose buyers are therefore exempt from criminal background checks — may, in fact, be in the business of selling those weapons, a different category.
There are a few more aspects of his actions that could also make a difference around the edges, like an attempt to link mental health records with criminal background check data, and faster FBI processing of background checks.
All of these are commendable steps. They should have been taken earlier. But we doubt that any of this will make a big dent in the epidemic of gun violence that kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. That would require help from a Congress whose majority is paralyzed by fear of the gun lobby. That’s why Mr. Obama had no choice except to do what he could by executive action.
Poll after poll shows that Americans are totally on board if lawmakers approve more restrictive background check laws. An October Gallup poll found 86 percent of Americans favored “a law which would require universal background checks for all gun purchases in the U.S.” And still Congress refuses to confront the issue.
As long as lawmakers are more afraid of the gun lobby than they are of the American electorate, don’t expect big changes in America’s gun laws.