Political Animal


January 10, 2013 10:00 AM Limits of Executive Action on Guns

By Ed Kilgore

Slate’s David Weigel, in noting the semi-psychotic frenzy breaking out among Second Amendment absolutists in response to allusions by the vice president and others about actions the administration can take on gun violence that don’t require congressional action, argues such actions wouldn’t go that far:

The big priorities of the gun control movement — background checks, magazine size limits, an assault weapons ban — all require action from Congress. According to Mayors Against Illegal Guns (which has recently overtaken the Brady campaign as the organization most despised by the gun lobby), the executive branch would be limited to a few tweaks of current law. Their current pitch mentions three of them:
- Directing the DOJ to prosecute more “prohibited purchasers” when they attempt to buy guns. In 2009, the FBI referred 71,000 cases of thse buyers, mostly felons. U.S. attorneys prosecuted only 77 cases.
- Appointing a permanent ATF director. The ATF has spooked the right ever since Ruby Ridge (before, too, but that’s when the real agita started), and the Senate hasn’t confirmed a permanent director since 2006.
- Requiring federal agencies to report mental health records. The NICS Improvement Act of 2007, passed after the Virginia Tech shootings, requires this. It hardly ever happens.
There we go: Three things Obama could propose by executive order, none affecting the guns and ammo currently for sale in the United States.

Weigel seems puzzled that the White House would push the ultimate button among gun nuts—the fear of executive action to take away their shooting irons, as reflected in the Drudge Reports use of images of Hitler and Stalin to accompany a headline on the story—with so little ammunition—if you will excuse the expression—on hand to back it up. I can’t answer that, but I do think there is a chance there is a deliberate desire to give the gun-huggers the opportunity to discredit themselves at one of those rare moments when the broader public is paying close attention to this issue.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Josef K on January 10, 2013 10:08 AM:

    I canít answer that, but I do think there is a chance there is a deliberate desire to give the gun-huggers the opportunity to discredit themselves at one of those rare moments when the broader public is paying close attention to this issue.

    I personally suspect that's just a happy coincidence. Not knowing what the actual deliberations are going on inside Biden's task force or within the Oval Office on this issue, its just plausible the task force was looking at practical steps that can be taken. Its equally plausible that they concluded any ideas would automatically create a freakout and are aiming more at shaming Congress (read, the Republicans) into either passing something or not.

    Either way, I don't think they're deliberately trying to make the gun-nuts look, well, nuts.

  • Memekiller on January 10, 2013 10:12 AM:

    I am under no illusions meaningful gun control will pass. The most important thing to come out of this is to diminish the perceived power and public perception of the NRA. We've achieved something with even a symbolic walk-back for the organization that has had to resort to conspiracy theories and forcing guns on college campuses and into our schools, while standing up for the rights of people on the terrorist watch list because there is no effort to touch guns.

    The NRA has taken a public relations hit already. Next would be puncturing the myth of their political untouchability. Third is to peel off the responsible gun owners from the tactical/survivalist element the NRA caters to, and expose them as a gun industry lobby rather than a gun rights group.

  • heddache on January 10, 2013 10:30 AM:

    I'm sure/hope that Obama's secret service team must be working overtime or is prepared to do so for the near future. I truly worry that almost any action on gun control, no matter how minor or rational, will provoke persons/people who are already predisposed to violent, paranoid fantasies about killing Obama to do more than daydream. It doesn't mean action shouldn't be taken I just hope that necessary precautions are in place.

  • biggerbox on January 10, 2013 10:54 AM:

    Much as I would like to believe the White House is using some PR ju-jitsu to allow the gun-nuts to look bad, I doubt that was an intentional goal. I think it was really just a reaction to the realization that reasonable people would be skeptical that anything is going to happen on gun control, given the House GOP's insanity, and the need for the White House to suggest that something is going to happen, which means something that doesn't require Congress.

  • schtick on January 10, 2013 10:58 AM:

    Leave the guns and ban the bullets, clips, magazines, and drums that are used in those guns. Like Cuomo said, you don't need ten bullets to kill a deer. If you do, you really shouldn't hunt until you have spent a whole lotta time on the firing range.

    They always say after a tragedy that now is not the time to talk about gun regulation, but the whole problem is, they never talk about it afterwards.

    Someone shoots up a school full of children and nothing changes. Someone tries to set their shoes on fire on a plane and everyone has to take their shoes off, go through a metal detector or X-ray machine or a pat down before they can board their flight.

  • skeptonomist on January 10, 2013 11:11 AM:

    Why would Obama use executive action to trivial effect against gun violence? So he can be seen on the liberal side (which may even be the majority side, as regards assault weapons) as having done something. There is zero chance of any legislation being passed and Obama is not going to waste effort on trying to get a bill through. There is nothing he can do to influence the gun-nut fringe or the NRA either way - their reactions have always been crazy.

  • jpeckjr on January 10, 2013 11:24 AM:

    Overthrowing a tyrannical government is the primary argument A2 extremists proffer for unrestricted gun ownership. There is no greater tyranny, they say, than laws and regulations restricting gun ownership.

    They are the ones keeping the "Obama's going to take away our guns" meme alive and active. Because they are ideological fundamentalists on this issue -- detached from reality -- the fact there is no evidence the President is going to do this makes no difference.

  • T2 on January 10, 2013 11:27 AM:

    Obama should do whatever he can do, even if it is somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of gun/ammo control. And if the Executive Orders make the RightWingNuts go crazy, all the better. Each and every time the TeaNuts/GunNuts/PrepperNuts go berserk they simply put more distance between them and normal Americans who easily understand that an assault rifle is a military weapon intended to kill people, not deer or bunnies, and that a "well regulated militia" is not a bunch of guys in white sheets and pointy hats marching on the local all black church.

  • kindness on January 10, 2013 11:28 AM:

    I think Executive action can't be used to make any particular guns illegal but I do believe it can be used to limit the clip/magazine size of guns and the gun show/private sale loophole for background checks. And honestly since it is obvious there are those in Congress who will not allow ANY additional restrictions, I support President Obama making a push to address those two issues.

  • rk on January 10, 2013 4:08 PM:

    Given that the executive branch can only enforce laws, would not any executive orders by Obama be merely "enforcing the gun laws that we have on the books now."

  • PC on January 11, 2013 11:13 AM:

    President Obama has a precedent of using executive orders to go around Congress--heck, he did it with a reelection fear. That is why the "gun-huggers" are so fearful. They realize that he has no scruples or cares about the balance of powers enshrined in our Constitution.

  • PC on January 11, 2013 11:27 AM:


    There is no "gun show" loophole. Yes, there are no requirements for background checks for private sales, but that is the same for private sales at gun shows or in a parking lot. Licensed gun dealers are required to do instant background checks whether at a gun show or at their brick and mortar gun store.

    In terms of eliminating private transfers, I guess when I give my shotgun (that was bought by my great grandfather and given to my grandfather, and then by my grandfather to my father, and my father to me) to my son, it is expected that I have to go through a licensed gun dealer to do it. What an absurdity.

    The key to the private sale loophole is to punish those that sell guns to felons. We know it happens, but it is rarely prosecuted. Instead our ATF concentrates on allowing guns to go to Mexican drug cartels in a chance to make a political point.