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Q & A

A Political Scientist Explains the Exaggerated Reactions to Obama’s Executive Actions on Guns

Duke University professor Kristin Goss analyzes the response from both sides of the issue.

At a CNN-hosted town hall event two days after President Barack Obama announced his executive actions on guns, some gun-rights supporters asked questions premised on anti-gun measures that Obama had not proposed. Meanwhile, gun violence prevention activists praised the moves for ushering in “bold and meaningful” change that they may not deliver.

What makes the gun debate so prone to overheating? The answer lies partly in classic techniques of coalition building that apply to any issue, and partly in the history that each side of the firearms policy debate brings to this particular political moment.

To parse the political motivations behind the public praise and condemnation, The Trace spoke to Kristin Goss, a political scientist at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and author or co-author of several books on gun politics and political movements.

What were the basic politics of these executive actions?

This was a mix of 13 exhortations and bureaucratic reforms and guidance — there were no executive orders, contrary to what everybody’s reporting. I think he’s making good on his promise to use his phone and his pen. He went as far as he could in his authority as president.

Can you walk us through what the different constituencies see in these executive actions?

Courtesy of Kristin A. Goss

How different constituencies on the pro-gun side are going to react is an open question. It’s not clear to me how gun sellers like federally licensed dealers would be adversely impacted; it seems, if anything, they will be better off because anybody who’s acting as a dealer, but is not licensed, has some sort of competitive advantage. This brings more people who really are effectively dealing guns into the licensing system — that sort of levels the playing field.

The slippery slope argument — that any kind of gun regulation, no matter how modest, is just the first step toward a draconian regime — carries a lot of weight with gun owners and gun activists. There are some exceptions: pro-gun lawmakers have recently supported laws focused on domestic violence and guns, and mental health and guns. But generally gun activists are going to respond negatively to strengthening gun laws no matter what’s proposed.

What about anti-gun violence activists? 

I think the one major effect of the president’s actions — not just the announcement, but also the town hall on Thursday night and the State of the Union, where one seat in the First Lady’s box was left empty to honor victims of gun violence — has been that it’s really provided some heartening support and encouragement for pro-regulation activists who have been organizing around an issue that’s very, very difficult politically.

Historically, the gun control movement has struggled with maintaining a critical mass of mobilized supporters. One of the things that can really help with movement building and sustainability is having opportunities in politics and encouragement from political leaders. Probably the biggest short-term effect of any of these proposals is to provide a lift to the pro-regulation organizations and activists. 

So that accounts for why anti-gun violence activists considering Obama’s moves to be so meaningful, rather than him simply checking off a policy box?

It also has to do with the fact that gun regulation groups are moving on multiple fronts. The president’s actions are potentially important actions that could have significant results down the line, but I think pro-regulation activists think that they’re going to get much greater results from actual legislation. They’re not settling for Obama’s actions.

Pro-regulation activists don’t have a single policy goal; they’re working on a lot of different aspects of gun violence prevention. So it’s not like the White House addresses their single policy goal symbolically, then there’s no more will to continue working on that policy. They’re working in a number of states on closing the private sale loophole, increasing enforcement capability around domestic violence and firearms, around mental health and firearms; these campaigns are not going to be affected by whatever the White House does.

Obama took three deliberate, high-profile steps to promote these executive actions: an announcement at the White House, an op-ed in the New York Times, and the town hall event. What’s the political calculus behind each?

They’re just different venues. The New York Times carries a lot of weight and is widely read by influencers. In the town hall, Obama directly answered questions from pro-gun activists and people who have concerns about his policies — that was a little bit unusual. And the White House event was probably aimed at shoring up support and showcasing the president’s commitment to the issue among people who were sympathetic to his views.

The NRA’s initial response, through a spokesperson, was “This is it?” But Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and in statehouses across the country are saying they’ll pass laws that invalidate the executive actions or they won’t fund the Department of Justice. These two groups often work very closely. Why the different reactions?

Well, it’s an election year. And so taking strong positions on a whole range of issues, guns being one of them, is a way of signaling to your voting constituency where you stand. Especially at this stage of the cycle, people are trying to fire up their base, and guns is an issue where we’re seeing increased sorting along party lines: if you’re a Democrat, you’re probably in favor of stricter gun laws, if you’re a Republican you’re probably in favor of either no more laws or loosening the ones we have.

So you’re going to hear rhetoric that is probably quite exaggerated relative to the actual policy impact of what the president has proposed. The piece of that package that’s getting the most attention is the background check piece, and that’s guidance — that has no force of law. It is a document that is letting people know that if they’re selling a lot of guns, here are the criteria they should be looking at to see if they need to get licensed. It’s just a hand book. So politicians are responding to this handbook. That’s not just Republicans. Everyone has an incentive to exaggerate what this actually does.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

[Photo: Pete Souza/The White House]