Four Steps The President Can Take Right Now To Address Gun Violence
Republican presidential candidates are adding insult to tragedy in the wake of last week’s massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, as we wrote about yesterday. Meanwhile, there are practical, meaningful steps we can take to strengthen gun safety laws and prevent gun violence. Much of the focus in this realm is reasonably on legislative change: Democrats and Republicans should come together to pass common-sense laws to reduce gun violence. There are some steps, however, that the Obama administration can also take to help enforce the laws on the books and make our nation safer.
Here are four areas in which President Obama could use his executive power to act:
1. Nominate a permanent director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). ATF is the federal agency charged with combatting gun crime and regulating the gun industry, yet the agency has been historically crippled by dysfunction and inconsistent leadership. Just today, Politico reported that acting director Thomas Brandon, who assumed the position when the previous ATF director resigned in March after only 20 months in the role, can only remain in that role by law for 120 days, or until Oct. 27. If the president fails to nominate someone to fill the director position, Brandon will be demoted back down to deputy director and expected to continue running the agency from that weakened position, adding yet another chapter in the agency’s history of leadership woes. In addition to that small step, the Center for American Progress has also suggested a bigger fix for the ATF’s problems: merge it with the FBI.
2. Take executive action to stop high-volume gun sellers doing so through the “private sale” loophole. Current federal law requires that those “engaged in the business” of selling firearms must have a federal license, and therefore must perform a background check on all purchases. The statute defining what “engaged in the business” means is vague, and it’s created a loophole allowing unlicensed gun dealers to sell guns by the hundreds with no questions asked, for example at gun shows or over the internet. The Obama administration could clarify the regulation, an idea put forward by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, to make it easier to prosecute people who abuse the law and claim they are private sellers when they are, in fact, engaged in high-volume retails sales.
3. Develop systems that enable law enforcement to be smarter and more aware of potential threats. Tens of thousands of people each year are prevented from buying guns because a background check identifies them as prohibited purchasers. Yet federal law enforcement generally does little to investigate and prosecute these attempted illegal sales. Information about prohibited individuals who attempt to buy guns would be very valuable to local law enforcement, who are in the best position to take action to prevent these individuals from succeeding in their quest to obtain a firearm. The FBI has a procedure to alert state and local law enforcement when fugitives attempt to purchase firearms. It should develop a similar electronic alert system to advise local law enforcement when any individual in their jurisdiction seeks to purchase a gun but was blocked from doing so because they are prohibited under federal law. Additionally, by analyzing those denials, ATF could work with the FBI to develop a risk-assessment instrument to identify denied gun purchasers who most at risk for future violence.
4. Incentivize gun safety through the federal government’s purchasing power. Government agencies account for 40 percent of gun industry revenues. An idea put forward by presidential candidate Martin O’Malley is for the government to use that enormous buying power to favor gun makers that take steps to improve gun safety, such as adding hidden serial numbers to make guns easier for law enforcement to track.
In additions to these four actions, reports from Everytown for Gun Safety, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the Center for American Progress have called for more than 40 additional measures the White House and the Department of Justice could take. President Obama took decisive action after Newtown by signing 23 executive actions, including to nominate an ATF director. That action needs to be taken again, and the others outlined above are several more steps to take.
While these are important and achievable goals, responsibility for the most substantial change lies with Congress. Senate Democrats introduced a sweeping new package today that puts the issue front and center and takes a clear position on popular issues like closing loopholes, expanding background checks, and keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. Opponents to these solutions often parrot the gun lobby by saying they want to focus on enforcing the laws on the books. But that’s exactly what expanding background checks would do — make it harder for those already prohibited like felons, abusers, and the severely mentally ill to buy guns.
BOTTOM LINE: After the Oregon shooting, President Obama rightfully urged Americans to “politicize” the issue. While ultimately Congress must act to pass common-sense gun safety reforms, there are steps the president himself can and should take to move beyond the political gridlock and help make the country safer. He has done it before.
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