It is January 20th, 2009. Blake Shelton’s “She Wouldn’t Be Gone” is topping the Country Music charts, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is the #1 movie at the box office, and Barack Hussein Obama II has been sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. President Obama would go on to serve two terms as President.
During his tenure as President, President Obama managed to get a lot of folks who strongly believe in the Second Amendment, really really angry with his outspoken stance on gun control. But how exactly did the Obama administration actually affect gun control?
How Did the Obama Administration Affect Gun Control?
While President Obama has always been a vocal advocate of gun control, especially in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, you might be surprised at how little has changed legislatively during his administration. With his second term nearing a close, the Obama legacy can only boast of two new laws enacted, and both loosened gun restrictions going back to the George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan presidencies, respectively. Obama took heat by gun rights activists in early 2016 for issuing a string of 23 executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence. What is often distorted (or overlooked completely) by media reports is that an executive action – as opposed to executive order – carries little weight in the real world.
The Evolution of President Obama’s Gun Control Doctrine
Obama Before the Presidency
Back when Mr. Obama was a largely unknown state senator from Illinois, he was an outspoken proponent of banning assault weapons. He maintained that rhetoric during his political rise, famously saying in a (federal) senatorial debate with Republican Alan Keyes that assault weapons “have only one purpose; to kill people.” He added that a ban on such weapons constituted a “common sense” way of thinking. It was during this campaign he repeatedly voiced his disagreement with then-President George W. Bush’s refusal to reinstitute the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.
The First Term
Banning assault weapons remained front and center during Mr. Obama’s first presidential campaign. He stated early and often that Congress should pass a permanent ban. From all indications it appears that shortly after being elected to a first term, Obama was forced to acknowledge (privately, at least) the difficulty involved in motivating the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate to go along with anything that even sniffed of an all-out assault weapon ban. For four years, his calls for removing such weapons from American society – except for the battlefield – faded into the background of day-to-day Washington DC rituals.
Even though Attorney General Eric Holder spoke of the new administration’s intention to resurrect the ban, such talk disappeared as well, especially after Obama told ABC News that “none of us are under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy.”
The Second Term
The Sandy Hook shootings – which killed 20 young students and six adult staff members, and coming a little over a month prior to his second inauguration – seemed to galvanize the President back into his role as Gun-Controller-in-Chief. Tired of the seemingly endless parade of mass public shootings, Obama came out swinging, declaring that his second term focus would be on increasing gun control measures. The words sounded good, but there was little (actually nothing) to show from a legislative standpoint. Though Congress took up debate on a new assault weapons ban, complete with an amendment that expanded background checks on gun purchases, failed to pass the Senate.
Obama Gun Legislation
Prior to Sandy Hook, the Obama administration didn’t press Congress for any type of new gun control legislation, preferring to say it was a states’ rights issue and that an effective approach would be to have local and federal authorities enforce laws that were already on the books. Considering congressional recalcitrance to be proactive on the issue, this was the President’s new fall back position.
The two new actual laws that have been passed on Obama’s watch actually expanded gun rights! The first allowed those legally qualified to carry guns to do so in national park areas. Previous to that, Reagan-era rules said guns must be locked in gloveboxes while on federal land. The second law made it legal to include guns with checked baggage while traveling on Amtrak. This reversed a policy that went into effect shortly after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2000.
To die hard gun control activists, the President’s written words at the time (2011), and their eloquent reiteration of America’s gun freedom history, must have been hard to swallow:
“In this country, we have a strong tradition of gun ownership that’s handed from generation to generation. Hunting and shooting are a part of our national heritage. And, in fact, my administration has not curtailed the rights of gun owners – it has expanded them, including allowing people to carry their guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.”
For Second Amendment supporters, the sentiment was a far cry from what the National Rifle Association (NRA) warned us would be the most anti-gun president in American history. While Mr. Obama may have had grand designs to make gun ownership more restrictive, the reality of his time in office simply doesn’t meet that standard.
“Ruling” By Executive Command
In another case of either media misunderstanding or misreporting, President Obama only issued a handful of actual executive orders related to gun control. What he did do was use a concept called executive action, which is an entirely different beast. We’ll talk about those in more detail later. An executive order is a legally binding pronouncement by a president which is duly recorded in the Federal Register. It can only be rescinded by subsequent presidential order or action of the court system or Congress.
Executive orders issued by Obama have nibbled around the fringes of banning assault weapons but a group of 23 presidential actions issued in January 2013 were widely and inaccurately reported as orders. When compared to the legal effect of an order, a presidential action carries no legal weight and is little more than a suggestion or personal goal. The following list of presidential actions read more like a wish list than anything even remotely resembling orders.
- Encourage via Presidential Memorandum that encourage federal agencies to share data with the federal background check network. (Note: a memorandum falls somewhere between an order and an action. It isn’t listed in the Federal Register, but serves notice to the public that the president will issue new guidelines to one or more federal agencies.)
- Figure out how to remove those legal barriers that prevent doctors from providing patient information to the federal background check network. (Note: this one scared a lot of second amendment and right to privacy adherents but, remember, this is an action, not an order.)
- Encourage individual states to also share information with the federal background check portal.
- Address, through the office of the Attorney General, dangerous individuals who are not supposed to have firearms but have managed to to procure them. Figure out where the system is failing and fix it.
- Create rules allowing law enforcement at all levels to access full background checks on persons who have had a weapon seized. This will help insure guns don’t make their way back into the hands of such individuals. (Note: This is merely an announced intention to PROPOSE rules. Nothing concrete at all.)
- Enlist the ATF to write guidelines describing how private gun sellers should go about running a background check. Step-by-step instructions will go a long ways towards encouraging licensed dealers to screen those they are selling to.
- Create a national marketing push towards promoting responsible, safe gun ownership.
- Examine safety standards related to gun locks and safes. Change/strengthen them if needed.
- Direct, via Presidential Memorandum, that all federal law enforcement agencies trace guns recovered in connection with criminal activity.
- Make widely available to all levels of law enforcement a Department of Justice document detailing data on stolen/lost guns.
- Fill the vacant Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agency’s director slot.
- School officials, first responders, and law enforcement have widely varied knowledge and training in regard to an active shooter event. Provide standardized information.
- Provide maximum support to law enforcement in its mission to reduce violent gun acts and follow through with gun crime prosecution.
- Assign the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) the mission of uncovering any possible underlying causes of gun violence, and how the national epidemic might be brought under control.
- Solicit private sector input on developing new firearm technologies that improve upon gun safety. Require Attorney General to report on the state of the art in reducing gun danger to citizens.
- Make it clear to the public that Obamacare does not prevent physicians from questioning patients about the presence of guns in their houses.
- Make clear to health care workers that federal law does not prevent them from contacting law enforcement to relay violent threats received from patients.
- Encourage schools to focus on hiring more safety officers. Provide financial incentives.
- Create standardized emergency response models to be distributed to churches, schools, colleges, and universities.
- Fill in state health administrators on what mental health services Medicaid should cover. In-time mental health treatment might prevent some gun violence.
- Create regulations called for within Obamacare that clarify basic health benefits and parity requirements within the Act’s exchanges.
- Finalize equality regulations in regard to mental health.
- Encourage a national mental health discussion, led by Secretary Sebelius (Health and Human Services) and Secretary Duncan (Dept. of Education).
Almost as quickly as they were announced, these executive actions fell off the radar for media outlets. There was an update six months later by Vice-President Joe Biden that two of the actions were complete and others had made “significant progress”.
The Big Question
Every presidential administration puts a spin on issues. But what about the numbers? The truth can surely be found in the numbers, right? Taking into account President Obama’s tough talk on gun control, were his policies effective as reflected in the numbers? In particular, we want to examine the following, when compared to the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush:
* Did gun ownership increase or decrease during his time in office?
* Were there fewer or more gun related incidents?
* Were gun sales higher or lower?
And the ultimate question by which history will judge the man: How successful was Obama at advocating gun control? Let’s take each question in turn.
Gun Ownership and Sales – Up or Down?
Any way you slice it, President Obama’s two terms have been great for the gun industry. Measuring by production, George W. Bush’s administration watched gun manufacturing increase by 18%. That’s quite a jump until you consider that Barack Obama’s administration witnessed a 140% production jump. We have a winner, hands down, when it comes to that metric.
According to The Washington Post, gun sales as measured by the number of Federal firearm background checks conducted, shot upwards in the last two years of Bush’s final term and continued that trajectory all through Obama’s terms, resulting in a much higher cumulative total for Obama. The obvious conclusion is that Mr. Obama’s lip service towards gun control overpowered an absence of substantive legislation to back it up and sent Second Amendment supporters into a gun-buying frenzy, which is not unsurprising. A certain percentage of the citizenry live in fear that the government is always poised to take their guns. They were (are) highly convinced that Obama would shut down the industry at any moment if he could, and resulted in a massive gun sales increase over the past eight years.
Despite wildly differing claims about gun crime rates by various leading politicians, the Bureau of Justice reports the gun crime rate has been relatively stable since 2008. Before that, gun crime surged in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s but had stabilized by the time George W. Bush took office and has fluctuated modestly throughout the Obama years. These statistics are based on handgun crimes. Other types of guns project a slightly different trend – climbing steadily since the year 2,000. The rate isn’t much different whether you look at Bush or Obama.
The Bottom Line
As to whether President Obama has been an effective advocate for gun control, there’s no hard and fast answer. It depends upon a person’s particular opinion and what they consider evidence of “effective” advocacy. If you’re looking for a president who isn’t afraid to consistently espouse an opinion that more gun control is needed, you probably think that Obama has been an effective advocate. If you were looking for substantial legislation to back up his consistent public opinion, there has likely been disappointment. And if you fall into the camp of those who confused his 23 point gun control executive actions for orders, you probably are greatly disappointed in the quality of the advocacy.
In one interesting piece published on the Mises Institute website, the author compared Obama’s gun control policies as quite similar to Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s. The latter two were proponents of enhanced background checks and closing the “gun show loophole.”
*NOTE: The gun show loophole refers to the gun sales that fall outside the control of Federal law, such as between two unlicensed parties – the kind that often meet at a gun show.
Interestingly, Obama, Bush, and Reagan seem to align more than one might expect on the gun control issue. Maybe presidents’ of the two major parties aren’t as far apart as one might expect, even on “divisive” issues.