Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Calm yourself, boys. Obama ain't coming for your guns

To hear gun-safety advocates describe it, the executive orders announced Tuesday by an emotional, frustrated President Obama are painfully modest and basically amount to trying to enforce current gun laws a little bit more effectively. They may not save a lot of lives, but at least it's an effort.

Conservative critics tell a very different story, as illustrated by the dramatic screengrab above taken from the campaign website of Ted Cruz. The reaction of Cruz's GOP colleagues was no more restrained, with Marco Rubio accusing Obama of plotting to "take away our guns" and being "obsessed with undermining the Second Amendment." As House Speaker Paul Ryan described it, “rather than focus on criminals and terrorists, Obama goes after the most law-abiding of citizens."

Clearly, conservatives and gun-safety advocates are offering two diametrically opposed viewpoints of the same series of steps. Which is more accurate? If you make the effort to read through the list of actions announced by the president, instead of allowing your thinking to do be done by others, I think the answer will be pretty clear.

For example, federal law dating back to the National Firearms Act of 1934 requires extensive background checks, including fingerprinting, before legal purchase of fully automatic weapons, sawed-off shotguns and other highly dangerous Class III weapons.  Most people, including gun enthusiasts, think those rules are both wise and constitutional. Unfortunately, however, would-be purchasers of such weapons have apparently found a loophole in the regulations that allows them to evade background checks by buying the weapons through trusts and other legal entities, instead of personally.

That's a potential problem. According to the White House, " ... the number of these applications has increased significantly over the years — from fewer than 900 applications in the year 2000 to more than 90,000 applications in 2014. ATF is finalizing a rule that makes clear that people will no longer be able to avoid background checks by buying NFA guns and other items through a trust or corporation."

That doesn't strike me as an attempt to undermine the Second Amendment. To the contrary, it's a common-sense step that is entirely consistent with Ryan's goal of targeting criminals and terrorists while protecting law-abiding citizens. I just don't understand the furor.

Likewise, current law already bars the mentally ill from buying guns. On Tuesday, the president moved to allow the names of those receiving mental-disability benefits through Social Security -- say, for severe schizophrenia -- to be cross-referenced for the first time in the background-check database and thus bar them from buying weapons. Another change allows states to submit their own mental-health data to the national database with less concern that doing so might violate federal health-privacy regulations. (Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, was able to acquire weapons despite being judged mentally ill by a Virginia judge because that finding was never submitted to the database.)

Obama also announced an effort that will make it more difficult for criminals to evade background checks, again a change that will target those not legally allowed to purchase weapons while doing nothing to affect the Second Amendment rights of legal, law-abiding citizens. It works like this:

Under existing federal law, anybody deemed "in the business" of firearm sales must be federally licensed as a dealer, which in turn means that any gun transactions they conduct as a dealer must include a background check. According to experts, however, some 40 percent of gun sales are conducted by "private" sellers who fall outside that safeguard system, which means that no background check takes place. That's the so-called "gunshow loophole," although most such sales are not conducted at gunshows.

But what does it mean to be "in the business" of firearm sales? The term is not well-defined in the law, which leaves its definition to regulation. And clearly, if you're just selling a weapon to a friend or your brother-in-law, without seeking to make a regular profit, you're not "in the business" and are not a dealer.

However, what if you sell several weapons a year at gun shows or through the Internet, without checking the background of the purchasers? What if you have business cards printed up, and regularly advertise your wares on Internet sites and at gun shows? In that case, the regulatory changes announced Tuesday may require you to both get a federal license and begin to use background checks.

Conservative critics of the Obama initiative have claimed that such Internet sales just don't take place, and that the change announced by the president addresses a non-existent problem. They're wrong, and many of them know they're wrong. For the record, here a sample of two advertisements for such no-background-check sales found earlier today at ArmsList.com, both of them right here in Georgia:

For whatever reason, both would-be buyers are explicitly looking to buy a weapon from a private, unlicensed seller, someone not required by federal law to either conduct a background check or keep a record of the transaction. The changes announced by Obama will not halt that practice -- it would take action by a reluctant Congress to accomplish that -- but it would raise the stakes for those who abuse that loophole most often. Again, that strikes me as mere common sense, not some assault on constitutional rights.

Finally, let's deal with the suggestion that by issuing such executive orders, Obama is somehow responsible for fueling the rise of the likes of Donald Trump. Let me do so by asking a simple question:

Which contributes more to the paranoia that is now driving right-wing politics?

A.) The actual, modest steps taken by President Obama, as outlined above, or

B.) the histrionic overreaction typified by the Cruz screengrab above, depicting Obama as a dictatorial tyrant out to disarm and then subjugate the American people.

My answer would be B.

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.