President Barack Obama will ring in the New Year by taking executive action to expand background checks on gun sales, according to media reports citing people familiar with White House proposals and planning.
The action, which will likely come sometime before Obama makes his final State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 12, is expected formally distinguish between gun sellers and gun collectors, according to multiple news reports published Thursday.
Under current federal law, background checks are required to be conducted by anyone “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, but this has largely applied only to licensed retailers, with gun collectors able to sell from their private collections without conducting a background check on the person purchasing the guns. As a result, 40 percent of gun sales in the country are made without a background check.
While the new executive action would not fully close the so-called “gun show loophole,” through which firearms can be purchased from individuals who aren’t technically retailers, it would establish a maximum number of annual sales above which a seller would be considered “engaged in the business” and thus required to conduct background checks — a move that would draw a critical distinction, for the first time, between those sellers who abuse the system and the majority of gun owners who sell guns only infrequently. These regulations would apply not only to firearms sold at gun shows, but also to those sold through classified newspaper ads, the Internet, and between individuals.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a group formed in 2014 by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to advocate for safer gun laws, says clarifying the “engaged in the business” standard through regulation would help prevent unlicensed sellers who offer hundreds of thousands of guns for sale, mainly online, from taking advantage of the law’s ambiguity.
“They sell guns without background checks and, as this report shows, some of those guns are later trafficked across states lines, recovered at crime scenes in major cities and used against police officers,” the group’s November report explains. “While these high-volume unlicensed sellers defy the intent of the law against ‘engaging in the business’ of dealing guns without a license, they can argue that they do not defy its letter – because the vague language of current law gives them ample room to play fast and loose with public safety.”
The executive action is also expected to require all dealers and manufacturers to report when firearms are stolen in transit to a buyer or go missing from inventory. The White House has not said exactly when the announcement would be made, but CNN and Politico are both reporting that the move is expected to come next week, with sources describing the executive action as “imminent.”
Obama, who has repeatedly gone before the nation to mourn the victims of mass shootings, told the BBC in July that failure to pass “common sense gun safety laws” was the “biggest frustration” of his presidency.
“If you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it’s less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it’s in the tens of thousands,” Obama said. “For us not to be able to resolve that issue has been something that is distressing.”
Following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Obama convened a task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, that resulted in 23 executive actions. But recommendations to make background checks universal, reinstate the expired assault weapons ban and limit the size of magazines have all failed in Congress.
Lawmakers rejected universal background check legislation as recently as Dec. 3, the day after the San Bernardino shooting that left 14 people dead and 21 more injured.
Frustrated with the lack of action from Congress, Obama has vowed to use “whatever power this office holds” to put in place gun control measures via executive action. However, Congress would still need to pass a law to make background checks apply to all sellers and vendors.
The majority of Americans support the idea of background checks for gun shows and private sales. According to a July Pew Research Center survey, 85 percent favor such policies, and the sentiment crosses political and ideological lines: 79 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of those who say they prioritize gun rights over gun regulations also favor background checks for private sales.
Despite overwhelming public support for expanding background checks, the President’s actions will undoubtedly be denounced by the vast majority of congressional Republicans, who have consistently opposed even the most commonsense gun control laws such as those seeking to stop known and suspected terrorists from purchasing guns.
Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association is also staunchly opposed to expanding background checks, claiming that they are ineffective in keeping guns out of the hands of those who wish to do harm. “No amount of background checks can stop these criminals,” the NRA says in its official statement on background checks.
But as Dr. Daniel Webster, a leading expert on gun violence and the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, points out: “The logic of this argument is flawed. It could be used to dismiss the utility of virtually any law because criminals will disobey it. The illogical exemption of private gun sales from background checks is the very reason that criminals don’t currently have to obey existing background check laws.”
Evidence supports effectiveness of background checks
There is also strong empirical evidence indicating that more expansive background checks can and do prevent guns from ending up in the hands of dangerous people, which ultimately leads to fewer firearm-related crimes and deaths.
Since taking effect in 1994, the federal background check system has blocked more than 2.4 million gun sales to prohibited purchasers including felons, domestic abusers, and other violent criminals. Hoping to build on the federal framework, several states have enacted stricter laws to close the loopholes that permit gun purchases without a background check. In those states, there are 46 percent fewer women shot to death by intimate partners, 48 percent fewer firearm suicides, 17 percent fewer aggravated assaults involving firearms, and 48 percent fewer law enforcement officers killed by guns.
Some of the most convincing evidence that background checks work comes from a series of studies conducted by Dr. Webster’s team at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. The first study, published in 2014, found that the 2007 repeal of Missouri’s expanded background check law led to a 25 percent increase in the state’s firearm homicide rates. A second study, published in June 2015, found that the enactment of stricter background check requirements in Connecticut resulted in a 40 percent reduction in gun-related homicides statewide. During that same time period, there was not a similar drop in non-firearm homicides, which confirms the correlation between the new requirements and the drop in gun homicides.
Unfortunately, statewide efforts to reduce gun crimes and violence through background check requirements are often undermined by the free flow of guns across state borders — some of it legal, some of it not. Data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms underscores this point: In 2014, ATF traced the source of over 170,000 guns used in crimes in the U.S. and discovered that well over a quarter of them — 28 percent — were used to commit crimes in a state other than the one they were purchased in.
Most of those guns are coming from states with minimal background check requirements — a problem that could be greatly reduced by closing gun sale loopholes. According to ATF data, states that have expanded background checks to include private handgun sales ‘export’ 64 percent fewer “crime guns” — guns originally sold in-state that were later recovered at crime scenes in other states — than those states without expanded background check systems.