Dozens of Democratic lawmakers implored President Obama to simply issue executive orders toughening gun curbs. They made their impassioned plea three years before the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. They and others will make even more impassioned pleas to Obama to put his executive pen to paper and enact one or more measures that put some clamps on the types of guns that can be bought and sold and who can get them. He almost certainly will back California Senator Diane Feinstein's bill to reinstate the 1994 ban on assault weapons. But Feinstein won't reintroduce the bill until sometime next year. And then the fight to get passage will be long and drawn out.
In the meantime, Obama could heed the lawmaker's pleas and follow the precedent of Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush and issue executive orders on gun curbs. Bush in 1989 used the 1968 Gun Control Act to ban the import of assault rifles.
A decade later Clinton went further and banned firearms and ammunition from China. Bush and Clinton got around the squeal from the gun lobby and anti-gun control congresspersons that this was an abrogation of congressional fiat by invoking the provision in the Gun Control Act that automatic weapons had to be "suitable for sporting purposes" to be legally bought and sold. The stockpiles of AK-47s and AR-15s hardly fit that description.
Obama could use the "sporting purposes" language to allow local and federal law enforcement agencies to crack down on the proliferation of these type weapons by mandating rigid inspections and confiscation of these weapons at the point of import. He could expand the requirement that gun shops in border states -- and even nationally -- require instant reporting of anyone who purchases two or more homegrown manufactured assault weapons. He could also mandate gun dealers to take even more stringent steps to secure firearms from theft, run screens on their employees and end the right of gun dealers that are closing up shop to sell off their guns absence any background checks on buyers.
These seem to be minimal steps that are well within Obama's executive reach. But one problem is still Congress. It has absolutely refused to even utter the words gun control for nearly a decade. Every bill that would have imposed gun curbs has been summarily buried in a house or senate committee. The gun lobby is a big reason for this. But the even bigger reason is a weak public will to press legislators on gun curbs. Another problem is the gun culture. It is deep, long-standing and permissive. Millions have bought into the line that an assault weapons ban is just a short step to banning all guns. Yet another problem is the delusion that guns are a necessity to defend liberties supposedly under assault from liberal Democrats and Obama. This irrational fear has jumped gun sales in the days after Sandy Hook.
The imposition of executive orders would also make Obama, not Congress, the face of the battle for tough gun control. The gun control lobby would go into high gear and use every ploy to inflame, polarize, and sow panic among millions of gun owners and anti-gun control opponents. It would take the spotlight and the heat off Congress which has faithfully pandered to the gun lobby. But on the plus side it would force Congress to seriously debate the need for gun control legislation. That debate would force the NRA and its congressional allies to tell why they adamantly oppose the ban of assault weapons, tougher background checks, and provisions to insure that guns are kept out of the hands of those with mental and emotional challenges. It would force gun control opponents to tell how these protective measures infringe on the right of law-abiding citizens to own and use guns for protection and sporting purposes. The executive orders that Obama could sign would be a good first step toward putting White House muscle immediately behind gun control.
But executive orders only peck at the edge of getting a handle on the gun massacre plague that confronts the nation. This can only come from an organized and concerted movement by citizens at all levels to get behind the efforts of groups that have repeatedly proposed common sense gun control measures that protect the rights of Americans to legally bear arms, but rid the streets and homes of arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. This happened in Britain following the Dunblane, Scotland school massacre in 1996, millions said no to guns, and got the government to eventually outlaw handgun sales.
If Obama issues executive orders toughening gun curbs he would and should be applauded for it. But the ball is still in Congress and the public's court to do everything possible to prevent another Sandy Hook massacre.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.