Obama’s Gun Actions are Modest and Constitutional

In looking over the fact sheet the White House provided to explain their executive actions on guns, I don’t see a whole lot for anyone to complain about, unless they feel that they didn’t go far enough.

One part is totally useless, as asking this Congress to give more money to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is like asking them to declare Ronald Reagan an enemy of the people.

Much of the rest is focused on increasing the effectiveness of the already existing National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Going to a 24/7 system will help avoid the current problem they have where they get requests for 63,000 background checks a day and have only three days to complete a check before a gun sale can take place without one. This falls into the category of “enforcing the gun laws that are already on the books” that the Republicans are always chanting like a mantra.

There’s a bit of a change in that the government will now be looking to eliminate a loophole that people exploit to buy machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. You won’t be able to buy ordinarily prohibited weapons anymore simply by creating trusts, corporations, or other legal entities to serve as phony middlemen.

If you’re looking to buy or sell guns without any oversight, these executive actions may impact you, but all they’re really looking to accomplish is for as many gun sales as possible to be run through the NICS background check system.

There’s a mental illness component which could concern some folks because it butts up against medical privacy issues. The biggest change is that the Social Security Administration will feed information into the background check system about people who receive SSA benefits for mental illness, particularly if the illness is severe enough that the beneficiary cannot handle their own account. The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) has also issued a rule that makes it clear that states can report on mentally ill people without running afoul of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). I’m not saying this isn’t problematic, as some people may avoid seeking help for mental problems to avoid losing their 2nd Amendment rights. Overall, though, most of the sensational mass shootings in recent years have been carried out by severely disturbed individuals like Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona, James Holmes in Colorado, and Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook.

What’s probably most threatening to gun rights absolutists is the last part which is related to smart gun technology.

As the single largest purchaser of firearms in the country, the Federal Government has a unique opportunity to advance this research and ensure that smart gun technology becomes a reality—and it is possible to do so in a way that makes the public safer and is consistent with the Second Amendment. Today, the President is taking action to further this work in the following way:

Issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security to take two important steps to promote smart gun technology.

Increase research and development efforts. The Presidential Memorandum directs the departments to conduct or sponsor research into gun safety technology that would reduce the frequency of accidental discharge or unauthorized use of firearms, and improve the tracing of lost or stolen guns. Within 90 days, these agencies must prepare a report outlining a research-and-development strategy designed to expedite the real-world deployment of such technology for use in practice.

Promote the use and acquisition of new technology. The Presidential Memorandum also directs the departments to review the availability of smart gun technology on a regular basis, and to explore potential ways to further its use and development to more broadly improve gun safety. In connection with these efforts, the departments will consult with other agencies that acquire firearms and take appropriate steps to consider whether including such technology in specifications for acquisition of firearms would be consistent with operational needs.

Preparing reports and conducting periodic reviews? It’s not much, really, but it would be significant if the government moved to smart gun technology. After all, we’ve all seen how a 2002 smart gun law in New Jersey has made the gun nuts go crazy and had the inadvertent effect of keeping smart guns off the market. Once smart guns get a foothold, it could be game over for the old way of shooting and killing people.

That would a positive legacy from these executive actions, but it’s mainly hypothetical right now. There’s no constitutional overreach in any of these proposals or actions.

But, that’s not how they’re being greeted by the Republicans, is it?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.