Obama Should Act Now on Clinton's Gun Proposal

Can Obama get us across?

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The political purpose behind the proposals to combat gun violence that Hillary Clinton introduced Monday may be to outflank her top rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders. On this issue, he's been a shrinking violet. But among them is a bid for executive action so compelling that Barack Obama should act on it now, and not risk waiting for the next president.

Clinton supports a number of sound legislative actions on guns: She would seek to repeal the gun industry's congressionally mandated immunity from tort law, a shameless special-interest loophole. She wants more funding to inspect gun dealers, most of whom haven't undergone required inspections in the past five years. She supports a federal law barring all domestic abusers and stalkers from purchasing firearms. And she backs a so-called assault weapons ban for military-style semi-automatic rifles.

There's little chance that any of this agenda will be enacted, however, given Republican majorities in the House and Senate, and entrenched partisan polarization on the issue. That's why the most provocative part of Clinton's plan is its proposal for executive action.

She wants to use executive power to redefine the gun-show loophole that allows an estimated 40 percent of U.S. gun sales to proceed with no background checks. Many people exploit this loophole to run de facto firearms businesses at flea markets, at gun shows or over the Internet. Exercising executive authority, Clinton would require that anyone who tries to sell a significant number of guns be deemed "in the business" of selling firearms, ensuring that they are subject to all the rules that apply to gun stores -- including mandatory background checks. (Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun regulation advocacy group supported by Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg, also endorses such executive action.)

Executive action in defiance of Congress is hardly an appealing strategy for public policy. But it appears increasingly impossible, in the face of congressional dysfunction, to address through legislation a scourge that contributes to killing more than 30,000 people a year. An attempt in 2013 to tighten the same loophole via legislation failed to overcome the Senate's 60-vote threshold.

Rather than wait for the next Democratic president, Obama should embrace Clinton's proposal. He'd have to expect an immediate lawsuit (only gun manufacturers are immune). But this would be a chance to test both the law and the extent of political support for clarifying it. Clinton has responded to an unreasonable circumstance with a reasoned proposal. Obama should take it up without delay.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.