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President Obama is weighing an executive order that would impose new background-check requirements on Americans who buy guns, in his administration’s first significant response to the several dozen school shootings that have taken place this year.
An executive order would allow the president to circumvent the Republican-controlled Congress, which has rebuffed all recent proposals to tighten gun-control laws. Although the Senate passed a bill to reform the federal background-check system—which has remained virtually unmodified for 17 years—the bill languished in the House.
The White House announcement follows closely after the Umpqua Community College killings last week in Oregon, in which nine people were killed and nine others were injured. Early Friday morning, Northern Arizona University became the site of the 46th school shooting this year—the 143rd since 2013.
The president’s plan would increase the number of background checks that sellers must perform by establishing new guidelines for individuals who profit from high-volume gun sales.
Current law requires anyone “engaged in the business” of selling firearms to obtain a license and perform background checks, but the requirement exempts those who make “occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.”
The White House considered a proposal in 2013 to expand the licensing and background-check requirements to anyone who sells at least 50 guns per year, but officials ultimately set aside the idea due to the complexities of redefining who counts as a “gun dealer.”
The White House has considered increasing the threshold to at least 100 guns per year instead of 50.
The National Rifle Association sharply criticized the executive order. NSA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker slammed the administration’s plan, saying that any change to the current laws was unnecessary. “People who repeatedly sell large volumes of firearms are already covered in the current statute because they are already defined as ‘engaged in the business,’” she told the Washington Post.
Two out of every five guns sold in the United States change hands without a background check, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
In June, after shooter Dylann Roof entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine people with a .45-caliber weapon, the Federal Bureau of Investigation admitted that there had been a breakdown in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which was established in 1994 by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
Roof should have been flagged in the system when he tried to buy a gun two months before the shooting, because he had a prior drug conviction. The FBI has three business days to process a background check and approve or deny a gun purchase; after that time, a gun dealer is allowed to complete the sale.
“Like the Virginia Tech massacre, the Columbine massacre, and countless everyday shootings, gaps in our gun background check system contributed to the Charleston attack,” noted Arkadi Gerney, senior vice president at the Center for American Progress.
In July, John Russell Houser, a man with a record of mental illness, killed two people and wounded nine others at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, using a .40-caliber handgun that he purchased at an Alabama pawn shop.
Following the shooting, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who is now running for president, blasted politicians calling for a national debate about gun violence, accusing them of trying to score political points.
“Let’s focus on these families,” said Jindal, who has an A+ rating from the NRA.
President Obama last introduced proposals to tighten gun-control laws after the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which a lone gunman carrying three semi-automatic firearms murdered 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The shooter fired 156 bullets in less than five minutes, according to police.
Democrats in Congress introduced a bill the following year that would have banned more than 150 types of firearms, including military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. Republicans defeated that bill in the Senate; all but one of them, in addition to 15 Democrats, voted against it.
Had the bill passed, it still would have exempted more than 2,250 specific firearms used for hunting and sport. It also would have grandfathered in all weapons owned prior to the day the law was enacted.
“This proposal would have done nothing to prevent the terrible murders in Newtown, but it would limit the constitutional liberties of law-abiding citizens,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), now a presidential candidate, told reporters at the time.
That same day, 41 Republicans and five Democrats helped defeat a bipartisan bill known as the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, which would have expanded background checks to cover firearm purchases at gun shows and online.
Flanked by the parents of children murdered in Newtown, President Obama lashed out at the lawmakers who killed the bill, as well as the NRA, which had circulated false information about a “Big Brother” gun-owner list just prior to the vote.
“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” Obama said.
According to ShootingTrack.com, a website that monitors shootings that kill at least four people, there have been 298 mass shootings in the United States this year.
Photo by ..Russ../Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)
Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.