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Gun-Control Theater

President Obama signs executive orders on gun control, January 16, 2013.

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President Obama announced his plans for gun control just before noon today. He put 23 executive actions in place immediately following his speech, and called on Congress to take additional measures. There are useful small steps in the president’s agenda, but his boldest proposals are misguided — and unlikely to pass the Republican House. The announcement — during which Obama was accompanied on stage by four children, and which he frequently punctuated with emotional appeals — was primarily an act of political theater.

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Many of the actions the president has taken or proposed are unremarkable. For instance, few would object to his appointing a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; requiring federal agencies to supply relevant information to the background-check system; or making efforts to educate mental-health professionals about their options for reporting threats of violence. Congress should indeed stiffen penalties on straw purchasers, those who buy guns from dealers and then pass them off to people who are not allowed to have them. It is not the federal government’s role to fund local schools’ safety efforts or provide money for hiring police, but such efforts are hardly out of the ordinary or a serious threat to liberty.

The president overstepped his bounds, however, in directing the Centers for Disease Control to study gun control. Congress has taken steps to deny the CDC funds for this purpose — the unfortunately imprecise statutory language is that the CDC may not “advocate or promote gun control” — primarily because the agency has proven itself unable to address this topic in an unbiased fashion. If the president wants to spend federal dollars on these studies, he should go through Congress. Anyway, the administration does not seem interested in learning from the research we already have. Serious research reviews by the National Academy of Sciences and the CDC itself have failed to find evidence that gun control reduces crime — despite the massive amount of work that has been done. (And in case anyone in the administration is unclear on this point, gun ownership is not a disease.)

President Obama also called for restoring the assault-weapons ban and capping magazine size at ten rounds. As we have explained previously, these measures are not useful if the goal is to reduce crime: President Obama can call assault rifles “weapons designed for the theater of war” all he wants, but in fact they are semiautomatic guns, functionally indistinguishable from hunting rifles. High-capacity magazines, meanwhile, are of dubious benefit to someone intent on harming innocents: They require less frequent reloading, but are more likely to jam, and at any rate changing magazines is not difficult even for the untrained.

In addition, the president backed mandatory background checks on gun sales between private individuals; under current law, checks are required only for sales conducted through licensed dealers. In theory, a comprehensive background-check system could be helpful — but in practice, any attempt to implement such a system would probably be cumbersome and unworkable, and the president did not offer specifics. It would be wrong to make gun sales difficult and expensive, or to spend massive amounts of money on a project with dubious benefits.

All in all, the president’s agenda seems better designed for the polls than for public safety. Gun control means hitting what you aim for, goes the slogan, and Obama has picked his target carefully.



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