by Adam Winkler, Professor of Law, UCLA Law. Winkler is author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
President Obama announced today a series of gun reforms that he plans to execute as a matter of executive action. Federal gun laws are pretty detailed, so there were significant limits to what the president could do. Yet, as a group of scholars (including me) advised in a recent American Constitution Society letter, the president does have the authority to do more to limit access to guns by felons and the mentally ill and to crack down on rogue gun dealers. The proposals announced today do just that.
The reforms, taken individually, won’t have that much immediate impact. Nonetheless, taken together, they might make a dent in America’s epidemic of gun violence. Much of the media attention so far has focused on his proposal to broaden the definition of who is “engaged in the business” of selling guns and who, therefore, must have a license and conduct background checks. That’s a worthwhile reform, but equally important are the other elements of his gun reform package: strengthening the background check system by gathering more information from states; hiring more agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the main federal law enforcement agency charged with overseeing our gun laws; and encouraging federal agencies to finance gun violence prevention research. These reforms will, in the long run, make it easier to crack down on rogue gun dealers and do more to insure that people prohibited from purchasing firearms don’t slip through the cracks of our current background check system.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this package of gun reforms is that, regardless of the details of the proposals, what it says about the state of the gun debate. For the past few decades, it was unimaginable that a democratic president would propose gun reforms in an election year. Democrats saw gun control as a losing issue. That’s changed since Newtown. Today, we are seeing Democrats seize the gun control issue rather than run away from it. Hillary Clinton has made gun control a central plank in her platform, gun control candidates are receiving significant financial support from gun control organizations, and we are seeing vibrant political mobilization by Americans who want better gun laws. Even without Congress acting, we’ve seen considerable reform at the state level, and (as these proposals highlight) through executive action. The gun control movement is back.