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Obama Looking For Ways Around Congress On Gun Policy

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With Reporting By Lucia Graves

WASHINGTON -- Faced with a Congress hostile to even slight restrictions of Second Amendment rights, the Obama administration is exploring potential changes to gun laws that can be secured strictly through executive action, administration officials say.

The Department of Justice held the first in what is expected to be a series of meetings on Tuesday afternoon with a group of stakeholders in the ongoing gun-policy debates. Before the meeting, officials said part of the discussion was expected to center around the White House's options for shaping policy on its own or through its adjoining agencies and departments -- on issues ranging from beefing up background checks to encouraging better data-sharing.

Administration officials said talk of executive orders or agency action are among a host of options that President Barack Obama and his advisers are considering. “The purpose of these discussions is to be a productive exchange of good ideas from folks across the spectrum,” one official said. “We think that’s a good place to start.”

Earlier in the day, House Democrats joined New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to offer another possible starting point, announcing legislation that would make fundamental changes to the nation’s gun background check system. Sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), a longtime gun control advocate, the bill mirrors one introduced late last month by another New York Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer.

“Too often, any serious discussion about guns devolves into ideological arguments that have nothing to do with the real problem,” Bloomberg, a co-founder of the coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told reporters at a press event outside the Capitol. “Our coalition strongly believes in the Second Amendment. We also know from experience that we can keep guns away from dangerous people without imposing burdens on law-abiding gun owners."

For gun control advocates, however, executive action remains a more promising -- albeit more limited -- vehicle for reform than Congress. On Monday, The Huffington Post first reported that the Justice Department was convening meetings with groups from across the ideological spectrum in an effort to chart potential policy changes to Second Amendment law.

The discussions were meant to build a broad coalition around the elements of reform Obama had outlined a day earlier in an op-ed for the Arizona Daily Star, including stronger state-to-state coordination, expedited background checks and greater enforcement of the laws already on the books, especially with regard to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

But the coalition-building didn’t start off on a promising note. The National Rifle Association responded to the op-ed by arguing that Obama had missed the point “entirely” in ignoring lax law enforcement and shortcomings in the nation's mental health system.

The NRA’s response crystallized what administration officials and gun control advocates have long known to be a major potential roadblock in any reform effort: a policy approach that gives off even the hint of restricting access to firearms will be met with forceful opposition by the gun lobby and its allies.

Even when Democrats attempted to limit the ability of outside interest groups to make anonymous campaign donations, they ultimately exempted the NRA for fear that the group would derail the entire enterprise. And so, the conversation has drifted towards executive action.

“We need tougher laws, but there’s a lot we can and should be doing to enforce the laws we have,” said Mark Glaze, the executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “Sometimes it’s a question of manpower and money, but in many cases it’s just a question of political will. We think the president knows that and is getting there.”

The extent to which Obama can change gun law without the hand of Congress is not, gun control activists say, wholly insignificant. Though they say they'd prefer longer-lasting, broader legislative responses to shootings like that which occurred in Tucson, Ariz., in early January, there are notable gaps that can be filled with presidential action.

With respect to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), a Clinton-era rule had prevented the military from reporting to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, had been rejected as a recruit for failing a drug test. Obama could reverse that without Congress, Glaze and an administration official said.

As for other possible actions that can be taken without Congress, Mayors Against Illegal Guns has compiled a wishlist of sorts, suggesting that the national background-check system enforce the requirement that all federal agencies report individuals forbidden under federal law from purchasing guns; that the White House restructure regulations requiring that the FBI destroy firearm-purchase records after 90 days; that the FBI, DOJ and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives be more aggressive in pursuing federal prosecutions against those individuals who illegally attempted to buy firearms; and that the latter agency ramp up undercover investigations of sales at gun shows.