President: Executive orders not enough

The nearly two dozen separate directives President Obama announced Wednesday fall well short of the street-level reforms sought by his task force.

Twenty-three executive actions announced by the president command federal agencies to — among other things — conduct studies, issue letters, review standards and launch a national dialogue on gun violence. 

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Obama called for expanded gun-safety rules, nominated a new director for the long-headless Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and moved to clarify what doctors and health professionals can do to discern and report perceived threats involving guns.

The measures were lauded by gun-control advocates who considered them an important step forward after almost two decades of federal inaction on the issue. They also came under fire from some on the political right, who described them as the latest in a series of executive oversteps by the president.

But ultimately, though many in number, the measures laid out Wednesday would do little to advance the top priorities of gun-control advocates, including bans on assault weapons and certain large-capacity magazines, universal background checks and a law against so-called “straw purchases” of guns. Those initiatives require action from a divided Congress, where gun legislation is seen as having a difficult road forward. 

“The president is limited in what he can do,” said UCLA law Professor Adam Winkler, an expert in the politics of gun control in America. “Despite the large number of proposals, there’s only so much the president can do through executive order.” 

Obama himself lamented the limitations of his authority. 

“As important as these steps are, they are in no way a substitute for action from members of Congress,” he said during remarks at the White House. “To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act, and Congress must act soon.”

Obama directed all 23 actions to take effect Wednesday, the White House said. Immediately following his address, he signed three that required his signature, as formal executive orders. Those require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study causes of gun violence, federal authorities to trace guns recovered during investigations and federal agencies to share records with the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). 

Gun dealers are required to use the system to screen for felons, drug abusers, the severely mentally ill or others who are prohibited from owning firearms. But most states, and some federal agencies, have failed to share records. 

Other actions announced Wednesday are less concrete, such as the directive to “maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime.”

Others would, at best, affect gun violence indirectly, as is the case with Obama’s nomination of Todd Jones for ATF director. 

Still, Winkler called Obama’s proposals a “bold” first step in the increasingly high-profile debate over gun control and said the president did much of what he could do, given the constraints on his authority. 

Winkler said the president could have unilaterally pursued expanded requirements on the kinds of guns that could be imported into the United States. 

Even so, the actions won praise from reformers including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and leading gun-control advocates in Congress. 

“The executive actions and proposals announced today will dramatically improve the background check system, protect law enforcement and resume gun-violence research in this country,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is pushing legislation to revive a national assault-weapon ban. 

Many congressional Republicans refrained from outright criticism of the president’s plan, saying they were taking the measures under consideration. 

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus, however, slammed the executive actions, saying they amounted to “an executive power grab that may please his political base but will not solve the problems at hand.”

“He paid lip service to our fundamental constitutional rights, but took actions that disregard the Second Amendment and the legislative process,” Priebus said.