National Beat Reporter
Illustration by Allie Sullberg, Staff Illustrator
Another year riddled with bullets and broken families prompted President Barack Obama to issue a few controversial executive actions last week aimed at reducing gun violence across the country.
In an emotional address last Tues., Jan. 5 — when Obama’s voice noticeably broke mid-tribute to the victims of Sandy Hook — the president introduced the new measures, which seek to accomplish four objectives: expand federal background checks to cover Internet and gun show sales; tighten enforcement by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); increased access to mental health care; and enhanced research on gun safety technology.
“The United States of America is not the only country on Earth with violent or dangerous people,” Obama said. “We are not inherently more prone to violence. But we are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency … And as I’ve said before, somehow we’ve become numb to it and we start thinking this is normal.”
The president emphasized increased ATF enforcement to ensure gun dealers on any exchange platform — Internet, gun shows or gun stores — are federally licensed and conduct legally mandated background checks, or else face up to $250,000 in fines. On top of a new Internet Investigation Center within the department to monitor illegal online firearms trafficking, he promised to include funding in his 2017 budget proposal for 200 additional ATF agents and investigators.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is expected to hire more than 230 new examiners and staff to process these checks literally around the clock and promptly inform local authorities when unlawful applicants are flagged. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has also sent a letter to states reiterating the importance of reporting criminal information to the background check system and enhancing efforts against domestic violence.
“And these steps will actually lead to a smoother process for law-abiding gun owners, a smoother process for responsible gun dealers, a stronger process for protecting the people from, the public from, dangerous people,” Obama said.
Some analysts have found holes in these particular points in the plan. Nonpartisan watchdog site FactCheck.org pointed to current legislation allowing unlicensed sales by “private” dealers, who are not considered “engaged in the business” of firearms dealing so long as they make only occasional exchanges for the sake of personal collection. Private dealers are therefore not required to conduct background checks on their buyers. In part, Obama’s Internet crackdown seems to be aimed at uncovering dealers who claim to be “private” to avoid obtaining a license.
Another action calls for $500 million, subject to congressional approval, to expand public access to mental health care. Obama presented this measure as something of a challenge, telling Republicans who often invoke mental illness as a causal factor behind gun violence: “Here’s your chance to support these efforts. Put your money where your mouth is.”
Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services revised a provision of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to permit the release of limited medical information by care providers to the federal background check system for patients prohibited from gun ownership on mental health grounds.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper hosted a nationally televised “town hall” with Obama last Thursday, centered around the executive actions and gun control across the country. The National Rifle Association, usually the most powerful voice for gun ownership rights, declined to participate in the event.
Following the one-hour discussion, Sheriff Paul Babeu of Arizona accused the president of evading a question the police officer had posed regarding the administration’s plans to tackle mental illness.
“[The] $500 million, quite frankly, that he proposed isn’t going to cut it,” Babeu told CNN on Friday.
Babeu is seeking the Republican nomination for Arizona’s 1st District congressional seat in the upcoming 2016 primary.
A final component of the presidential proposal is a directive ordering the Departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security to “conduct or sponsor research” on gun safety, and invest in projects to advance corresponding technology.
“If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can’t pull a trigger on a gun,” Obama said.
The administration has pledged to partner with manufacturers, retailers and other members of the private sector to determine what measures they can take to promote firearm safety.
Though all three Democratic presidential primary candidates have backed Obama’s plan, Republican hopefuls descended upon the proposal swiftly and with malice. In a recent interview with CNN, Texas Senator Ted Cruz called Obama an “anti-gun president”.
Cruz’s campaign used a Photoshopped image of a dictatorial-looking Obama in military garb as the backdrop to its email signup page for several days following the president’s national address. The image features a simple caption: “OBAMA WANTS YOUR GUNS.”
Other candidates criticized the president for abusing his executive power, even before the planned unveiling of his proposal. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went so far as to call Obama a “petulant child” in a Jan. 3 interview with Fox News, claiming the commander-in-chief often “acts like a king” to get his way. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was singing the same tune in his interview with Fox the same day.
“To use executive powers he doesn’t have is a pattern that is quite dangerous,” Bush said. “It’s not a surprise that people don’t believe that our government’s working on their behalf anymore when you have a president that recklessly uses executive authority that the Constitution doesn’t provide him.”