President Obama’s unilateral White House action on gun control is a good start. But Obama took the action precisely because he knows that gun control legislation is a virtual dead letter in Congress — at least for the time being.
To force the issue, Obama would have to spend precious time, energy, and resources jawboning anti-gun control congressional Democrats, wage an all-out battle with the gun lobby and the NRA, and risk losing the political momentum that he needs to do battle with GOP congressional obstructionists on the coming fight over the debt ceiling, spending cuts and deficit reduction.
The reported checklist of executive orders he’s proposed include strengthening federal laws against illegal gun trafficking, better coordination and tracking by federal agencies of gun sales, banning the import of military-style weapons, better record-keeping on guns sales and buyers, and stronger background checks on gun buyers. But none directly strike to the heart of how to stop an Adam Lanza, James Holmes, or Jared Loughner and the handful of other shooters from getting guns.
That’s Congress’ job. The few congressional leaders that have led the president for taking action on guns and have pushed for more stringent gun control flatly said that Congress will not budge on gun control. That includes reimposing the ban on assault weapons. Polls show that the majority of Americans support the ban. But polls have carried zero weight with Congress in the past and there’s no evidence that they do this time around either.
In the decade since the expiration of the assault weapons ban, Congress has had ample chance to enact a slew of gun control curbs that would have compelled legal gun owners to store guns in a tamper-proof safe and secure enclosure, bar anyone undergoing or referred to treatment for mental or emotional disorders from purchasing or having direct access to guns, and clamping an absolute ban on the sale of assault weapons. These provisions might, just might, have kept guns out of the hands of Lanza. These and other measures were repeatedly introduced in Congress and just as repeatedly buried before they ever reached the House or Senate floor.
Obama’s proposed executive orders touch on many of the measures that the dogged handful of Congressional gun control proponents has pushed for in the past. But they don’t have anywhere near the wallop that Congressional gun control laws would pack. The NRA is well aware of that. It will bluff and bluster against the proposed executive orders, and Obama, and loudly pander to ultra-conservatives who scream for massive resistance to alleged “federal intrusion” on gun owners’ rights.
The NRA, however, knows the name of the game on gun control is Congress, and to a lesser but important extent, the courts. It has plowed millions into a well-financed, well-honed machine to lobby, harangue, threaten and intimidate gun control advocates in Congress, and to try and defeat pro-gun control candidates. It has played watchdog over judicial appointments and moved quickly to torpedo the confirmation of any judicial appointee who gives even the vaguest hint that he or she would be likely to issue a ruling upholding a gun curb. This has paid dividends.
Time and again, state and federal appeals courts and the Supreme Court have overturned city and state gun control laws.
There’s also the threat that the courts, as well as Congress, could swing into action on Obama’s executive orders. Congress has the power to change (in this case, scrap) an executive order. The courts have the power to declare them unconstitutional or simply vacate the orders. The gun lobby almost certainly would try to arm twist one or the other to go after the orders.
Still, Obama’s proposal to issue executive orders thrusts him squarely in the center of the gun control battle. This amounts to a frontal challenge to Congress to seriously debate the need for gun control legislation. The debate will force the NRA and its congressional allies to explain why they adamantly oppose the ban of assault weapons, universal background checks and provisions to ensure that guns are kept out of the hands of those with mental and emotional challenges.
It would force gun control opponents to explain how these protective measures infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens to own and use guns for protection and sporting purposes.
The NRA has had free rein to make its case that even the weakest, most tepid, common sense gun curb would be tantamount to repealing the Second Amendment. It will scream the same again if Obama signs the proposed executive orders. But if he does, they would not be the cure all for unchecked gun violence; only Congress has the power to provide that cure. But the orders would be a good first step.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.