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Gun Policy

Taking Stock of President Obama’s Executive Actions to Reduce Gun Violence

In Charleston, the president showed a renewed sense of urgency for gun reform. But what about his past efforts?

What a strange week President Barack Obama must have had. In the wake of the Supreme Court delivering two huge policy victories to his administration, the president was called to Charleston, South Carolina, on a more somber note. On Friday, Obama once again eulogized a victim of mass gun violence: the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME Church, who was gunned down with eight of his parishioners during a bible study there.

“For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation,” Obama said. “The vast majority of Americans, the majority of gun owners want to do something about this. We see that now.”

It’s wasn’t the first time during his term in office that Obama had to react to a mass shooting incident. And though the prevailing sentiment might be different, the president’s reaction to Charleston echoes his response to the Newtown school shooting, particularly in its urgency for reform. “We can’t tolerate this anymore,” Obama said in 2012, just days after the massacre that killed 20 students and six educators. “We are not doing enough and we will have to change.”

To make good on that promise, barely one month later, the president called on Congress to pass a host of measures, including universal background check legislation, and a renewed assault-weapons ban. Obama also signed a suite of executive actions designed to reduce gun violence in the United States. The 23 proposals were intended to strengthen the background check system, expand mental health services, improve school safety, empower law enforcement, encourage new technology to make guns safer and resume government-funded research on gun violence.

Two years later, several of Obama’s executive actions have faced significant obstacles, often created by Congress. While the administration was able to take small steps to address access to mental health services, train first responders, and recall defective gun accessories, the most ambitious initiatives have been stymied. Here’s a look at where they stand now.

Tracking Lost and Stolen Guns

One of the president’s first executive actions instructed the Department of Justice to release a report on lost and stolen guns. The ensuing document reflected not only the 190,342 total firearms reported lost or stolen from private individuals in calendar year 2012, but also the 16,677 reported lost or stolen from the inventory of licensed firearm dealers.

“That’s very clearly one of the ways in which these bad apple gun dealers do business,” says Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “They pretend inventory is missing or guns are stolen so they can sell them off the books to gun traffickers and pocket the cash. It’s not a coincidence that 5 percent of the gun dealers in our country sell 90 percent of crime guns.”

Despite its striking findings, the 2013 DOJ report almost certainly underestimates the number of guns missing from dealers’ inventories. That’s because, due to an amendment first introduced to the DOJ appropriations bill by Congressman Todd Tiahrt in 2003, the ATF can’t compel firearms dealers to keep a physical inventory. That rider was carried annually until 2013, when Congress made it permanent. So how many guns are stolen from gun shops each year? Despite Obama’s action, legislative restraints make it impossible to really know.

Government-Funded Research

There’s a lot of confusion about the status of gun research at the CDC. It was never explicitly banned, but the threat that Congress would defund federal programs if lawmakers didn’t like the implications or conclusions of such studies had a chilling effect that has persisted even after Obama issued an order to resume research. In 2013, the CDC took the tentative step of sponsoring a report (by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council) to summarize past studies and identify key areas for future inquiry. But the CDC, still afraid of budget cuts, has gone no further. Indeed, no new empirical research on gun violence has been published by the CDC since the 1990s.

This year, Congresswoman Nita Lowey offered an amendment  that would have allowed the CDC to study gun violence without jeopardizing future funding. On June 24, one week after the Charleston shooting, House Republicans rejected it. “This prohibition has been in this bill since 1996. It is striking to me that neither side, and they have both been in the majority, has seen fit to repeal it,” said Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma. “We don’t think this place is the appropriate place for a debate over the Second Amendment.”

“That was stunning in its timing — that some members of Congress thought it was the appropriate action to take in the wake of the mass shooting and the tragedy in Charleston,” Chelsea Parsons, vice president of the Center for American Progress, tells The Trace. “It was, in a sense, [an effort] to undermine what the president did in the executive action.”

Permanent ATF Leadership 

President Obama also called for the confirmation of a permanent director of the ATF. Largely due to pressure from the National Rifle Association, the Senate had refused to confirm any nominee in the preceding seven years. By 2013, that extraordinary circumstance was beginning to attract mainstream-media scrutiny. The NRA went silent on the issue, and the Senate confirmed Obama’s nominee, B. Todd Jones, who had been serving as acting director on a part-time basis. Jones resigned in March of this year, though, and Obama’s next appointee might face a long wait.

“It does not appear that there are good prospects for getting another ATF director confirmed in the Senate,” says Parsons. “So we’re left with an agency that, once again, doesn’t have strong, permanent leadership at the top while it’s struggling to fulfill the very key and crucial mission of combatting gun violence in this country.” This spring, the Center for American Progress published a report detailing the challenges the ATF is facing now — including inadequate resources to combat online gun trafficking, jurisdictional tensions with the FBI, insufficient funding, and internal tensions between the law enforcement personnel (field agents) and regulatory personnel (investigators).

Background Checks

Several of President Obama’s executive actions after Newtown involved efforts to get states to report prohibited buyers to the federal background check system. Some states have declined to report people who had been involuntarily institutionalized in mental health facilities, citing concerns that doing so might violate privacy protections under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The act does permit states to share mental health records if required by law, but there is no federal law requiring them to report prohibited buyers to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). While most states have their own laws requiring NICS reporting, seven states do not. The administration’s efforts yielded an 800 percent increase in state reporting in 2013. Most of that additional reporting came from just 12 states, though, while others continue to withhold information from NICS.

What (Might) Be Next

After Newtown, the administration offered federal grants to incentivize states to comply with NICS reporting. The carrot hasn’t been entirely effective, so CAP’s Parsons suggests it’s time to try the stick. “That’s one of the things that we have suggested the administration look into,” says Parsons. “Actually using that authority to withhold funding [through federal grants] to penalize states that have not yet submitted the records that they’re required to. At this point, states have been on notice for nearly a decade that these records need to be submitted to the system.”

[Photo: Flickr user The White House]