An emotional President Obama on Tuesday announced a series of executive actions intended to reduce gun violence in the United States, including expanded background checks on gun buyers, research on gun safety, and hundreds of new FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents to step up enforcement of existing laws.
“People are dying,” the president said. “And the constant excuses for inaction … no longer suffice.”
The president has been unable to persuade Congress to pass sweeping gun control laws but said he hoped this week’s announcement would spur “common sense” legislation.
Are Obama’s executive actions a necessary measure to help prevent gun violence? Or an unconstitutional misuse of power? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate.
To hear President Obama’s critics, you’d think that any action government takes regarding guns is an unconscionable intrusion on Second Amendment liberties. That’s a bit of an overreaction.
Instead, two things are true about the president’s efforts: First, we Americans have already largely agreed that some among us should not possess guns — mostly criminals and the mentally ill. Second: We already have laws on the books to ensure guns don’t end up in the hands of those people. The effect of this week’s announcement? To more completely and effectively enforce the laws that are already on the books.
That’s not quite tyranny.
For example: Federal laws already require sellers “engaged in the business” of selling firearms to conduct background checks on their customers. Some sellers have evaded this requirement by claiming to be hobbyists. As The New York Times points out, the administration “has now ‘clarified' that people who claim to be hobbyists may actually be ‘engaged in the business’ of selling firearms if they operate an online gun store, pass out business cards or frequently sell guns in their original packaging.”
To which the only proper response is: Well, duh. If it looks and quacks like a gun-selling duck, it’s probably a gun seller. There’s nothing wrong with making them obey the law.
Obama isn’t just restricting already illegal access to guns, though. He’s also directed several federal agencies to put money into gun safety research and to examine ways to spread the use of “smart gun” technology.
Making guns safer isn’t at all the same thing as grabbing them.
Let’s be clear: The essential function of a gun is to kill. Period. End of story. We deserve to treat them gingerly. Yes, our history, customs and Constitution suggest that it’s fruitless to envision a gun-free society. But that doesn’t mean we should succumb to a “Wild West” mentality that suggests the only defense against guns is more guns. Some people simply shouldn’t possess firearms. Our laws already reflect that. Obama’s actions are right and proper.
It’s hardly an overreaction to condemn a president who claims the power to change the rules on guns or health care or immigration or the federal minimum wage because Congress “has failed to act.” That isn’t the way our Constitution is supposed to work.
How exactly is President Obama tramping on the Constitution here? The headline-grabbing part of his executive action effectively would redefine what it means to be “in the business” of selling guns. Congress in 1986 defined the term as “a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.”
But here’s the crucial part: “Such term shall not include a person who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.”
Got that? Congress explicitly excluded the widow who sells her late husband’s gun collection or the hobbyist who sells a pistol or a rifle to a friend – one-time sellers, broadly speaking. Exactly the sort of people who would be subject to federal regulation under the president’s new policy.
Now, Democrats may not like the language of the law and Obama may find it an inconvenient obstacle in advancing his gun control agenda in a presidential election year.
Too bad. The president doesn’t get to legislate from the Oval Office and call it “executive action.” Let’s not indulge in euphemism or accept the political spin. If Obama doesn’t like deliberative democracy and the separation of powers, then he picked the wrong job.
Obama’s actions this week likely won’t amount to much as far as reducing gun violence is concerned. But he continues to build upon an awful precedent, as he uses his pen to alter laws that hinder his administration’s agenda. Democrats will come to rue the day they abandoned even the pretense of constitutional limits in favor of political expediency. Count on it.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.