Obama Opens 2016 With Another Big Push on Guns

Could an emboldened president really shake up the chronic gun debate in his final year in office?

<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-90441p1.html">STILLFX</a>/Shutterstock


On the first day of 2016, President Barack Obama began his final year in the White House with brief comments highlighting his accomplishments on the economy, health care, marriage equality, and climate change. Then he focused once again on what he has described as his biggest frustration in office. “What if Congress did something—anything—to protect our kids from gun violence?” he asked in his weekly radio address. He noted that since the moment nearly three years ago when the Senate failed to tighten firearm regulations, “tens of thousands of our fellow Americans have been mowed down.”

Obama is expected to announce new executive orders this week on gun policy, aiming foremost to expand background checks for buyers by broadening the definition of a gun dealer. It’s not just about redoubling his efforts on an issue that marked “the worst day of his presidency” and undoubtedly occupies his thoughts about his legacy. He is continuing a push to circumvent pro-gun lawmakers using executive power, a strategy that has also been gaining momentum in some states.

Obama’s renewed push will also bring another bonanza for gun sellers.

Yet the reality is that Obama’s latest moves will do relatively little to change how easily Americans can get guns. Expanding background checks through a broader interpretation of current federal law still won’t close the so-called gun show loophole; hundreds of thousands of firearms will continue to be bought and sold with minimal regulation, both online and in person. Only an act of Congress could change that comprehensively.

Moreover, Obama’s renewed push will bring another bonanza for gun sellers. It’s been a surefire formula: The National Rifle Association declares that the White House is poised to strip Americans of their constitutional freedoms, and gun sales soar. Various Republican presidential candidates are now in on the act.

But those concerns may ultimately be secondary if Obama can shake up the fight over firearms by effectively tweaking a deeply entrenched and damaging national narrative. He also plans to hold a town hall meeting on guns on Thursday night at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia (not coincidentally the city that is home to NRA headquarters). As gun policy expert and long-time reform advocate Mark Glaze has put it, “Changes to the culture are more important in some ways than legal changes.”

The last few weeks have also brought notable moves on guns by Democratic leaders at the state level. Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut announced he would ban people on the US government’s terrorism watch lists from purchasing guns in his state. The attorney general of Virginia, Mark Herring, gutted a reciprocity agreement and prohibited permit-holding residents from 25 other states from carrying concealed weapons in Virginia. Meanwhile, political observers on both sides of the issue suggest that the major new gun reform groups created in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre are gaining ground.

Still, few would dispute that the deep-pocketed NRA and other gun lobbyists continue to have the upper hand in the nation’s legislatures. The freshest reminder of their advantage came on New Year’s Day in Texas, where a new law went into effect allowing nearly 1 million residents to openly carry handguns in public.

Obama may feel particularly emboldened now that it’s late in the fourth quarter. And America’s chronically polarized, mostly predictable gun politics may fundamentally be starting to change. Any honest appraisal would acknowledge that’s better than the grievous status quo.

OUR NEW CORRUPTION PROJECT

The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate