Obama's Gun-Control Moves Don't Match the Hype on Either Side

For all the fuss, the president isn't making it much harder to obtain guns.

Inside Pres. Obama's Speech on Gun Control

The loudest reactions to President Obama's latest gun-control proposals range from hyperbolic to phantasmagoric. The smarter take is that the White House moves, if implemented, would have little effect on crime. Yet they're still likely to draw heated political controversy.

Today (Tuesday, Jan. 5), the White House is announcing measures that include tougher rules for those who sell firearms at gun shows and on the Internet without submitting buyers’ names for criminal background checks. In addition, Obama is proposing to hire hundreds of new workers to modernize the background-check system for gun purchases and to spend $500 million for mental health research. His administration says it also will remove bureaucratic barriers preventing states from reporting individuals' mental health status to the FBI's background-check system. 

Even ahead of today's formal announcement, House Speaker Paul Ryan was lighting his hair on fire. Obama “is at minimum subverting the legislative branch and potentially overturning its will,” the Wisconsin Republican said. The reliably hysterical Donald Trump, a Republican presidential candidate, said on Monday that “pretty soon, you won’t be able to get guns.”

On the other side of the debate, the liberal Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence predicted in a news release that “history will be made" when the president makes his announcement in the White House. “The executive orders announced by President Obama today are a positive step toward making our communities safer,” Josh Horwitz, executive director of another liberal group, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, added in an e-mail.

In fact, Obama has hardly contradicted the will of Congress, let alone made it difficult for law-abiding people to obtain firearms. His proposed changes are far from historic, and their direct effect on crime seems speculative, at best. The most politically contentious aspect of Obama’s executive actions is to broaden the definition of a gun dealer. He targets sellers who operate from home, weekend gun shows, or via the Internet. Those sellers aren’t currently required to hold federal firearm licenses or submit buyers’ names for background screening by the FBI.

Obliging occasional gun sellers to perform background checks wouldn't have blocked sale of the weapons used in most recent mass shootings—including the December Islamic terrorist attack in San Bernardino and the December 2012 massacre at an elementary school in Connecticut. The killers in those cases used guns obtained legally through conventional outlets that conducted background checks.

Moreover, social science research indicates that relatively few guns currently purchased from unlicensed sellers are sold directly to criminals. The Justice Department found in one survey that just 0.7 percent of state prison inmates in 1997 purchased weapons at a gun show. Forty percent of inmates said they obtained the gun used in their crime from a relative or friend—transfers that wouldn't be covered by the Obama proposals. A further 39 precent said they had obtained weapons from the black market, another transfer that won't be affected by the proposed White House action.

Those findings are consistent with more recent research done at the University of Chicago and Duke University, which found that it's exceedingly rare for inmates to have obtained guns through formal channels in which background checks are even conceivably at issue. “To the extent that continues to be the case, I would say the president’s action in this area is not going to have much direct effect on criminal access to guns,” Philip J. Cook, a professor of public policy, economics, and sociology at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, told Bloomberg News.

Obama acknowledged the limits on what he can do without backing from a Republican-controlled Congress that is heavily influenced by the National Rifle Association. "Although we have to be very clear that this is not going to solve every violent crime in this country, it’s not going to prevent every mass shooting, it’s not going to keep every gun out of the hands of a criminal, it will potentially save lives and spare families the pain and the extraordinary loss that they suffer as a consequence" of gun violence, the president said on Monday after meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The NRA said it might challenge the president's actions in court but at the same time, it played down the significance of what's being proposed. “This is it, really?” Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman, said in comments to the New York Times. “This is what they’ve been hyping for how long now? This is the proposal they’ve spent seven years putting together? They’re not really doing anything.”

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