The modest gun control policies that President Barack Obama announced Tuesday are not the strongest or the most effective ways to curb the outrageous number of people killed by guns in this country. The best approach would be for Congress to act, but it refuses to stand up to the gun rights lobby even with overwhelming public support for sensible reforms. The president's incremental steps at least recognize the urgent need to make changes that can be strengthened when Congress finally finds the backbone to act.
The president moved to fix breakdowns under current law that enable criminals and others who cannot lawfully obtain guns to get them anyway. In a series of executive actions, the administration moved to expand background checks on so-called private gun sales, close loopholes on the sale of some of the most lethal weapons and toughen recordkeeping by the federal government and the states. The White House also called for 200 new federal agents to enforce the nation's gun laws and for $500 million in new investment in mental health programs, which would require congressional approval.
Taken together, these efforts only nibble around the edges of the problem and pose no threat to Second Amendment rights to bear arms. The White House underscored that anyone selling firearms must be licensed and conduct background checks on buyers — a signal that officials will crack down on gun sales through the Internet and at gun shows, where many dealers slip through the cracks by claiming they are casual sellers. Under the steps announced Tuesday, the government reaffirmed that the issue is not how many guns are sold or where, but whether any person is "actively engaged in the business." Tuesday's changes will not close the loophole, but better recordkeeping and additional firearms agents should help authorities identify more illegal operators.
The remaining measures are aimed at giving law enforcement at the federal and local levels a more accurate picture in real time of who is legally allowed to obtain a weapon. That should help dealers and improve public safety. The White House also directed agencies under its control to target illegal firearms traffickers and violent offenders. The Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice were also ordered to fund research that could improve gun safety and the tracing of lost weapons.
Predictably, the Republican presidential candidates didn't even wait for Obama's proposal to misrepresent it as an assault on Second Amendment rights. On Monday, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump declared: "Pretty soon you won't be able to get guns." Sen. Ted Cruz said: "We beat the bad guys by using our guns." Former Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday the order shows "utter disregard" for the Constitution.
That's all nonsense. The plan merely bolsters the government's ability to enforce laws already on the books. And it strengthens the mental health system — the very two responses that Republicans demand in the wake of every mass shooting. If anything, the administration conceded it is working at the margins as Obama is stymied by Congress and can only act within the confines of his executive authority to recommit to the rule of law.
The nation won't get a real grip on gun-related violence until Congress passes laws that require universal background checks, ban the sale of assault weapons and limit high-capacity magazines. But Obama has been forced to take this route the same way that obstructionism in Congress forced him to act alone in tackling climate change and immigration. And the president is not alone in searching for ways to address gun violence that don't require Congress. Mayors, including St. Petersburg's Rick Kriseman, are the ones looking for solutions because they are the ones facing the pain and costs of deadly shootings in their communities. Obama's plan is not a solution, but it moves public safety in the right direction and should build pressure on Congress to finally act.