Politics & Policy

Obama’s Politically Shortsighted Plan to Restrict Gun Rights by Executive Order

(Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty)

For a brief and shining moment, it looked this week as if Barack Obama had finally acknowledged that there were limits upon his power. Responding to the news that Hillary Clinton was hoping to achieve federal gun control by fiat, the White House did everything but scoff. Clinton’s idea, a staffer told the Washington Post, had been examined in detail a while back, and then rejected out of hand. Her proposal, he added, was likely to “present new and unforeseen enforcement problems,” to “create untold logistical . . . difficulties,” and, ultimately, to be “subject to legal challenge.” The administration, he concluded, “still has not found a way to make it work.”

Fewer than 48 hours later, the White House conceded that it was aiming to move ahead with the plan.

Politically speaking, this turnabout would be a considerable mistake. Although Americans are happy to tell pollsters that they favor limited gun control, their when-it-comes-to-it enthusiasm remains minimal. “Eye-popping majorities of Democratic, Republican, and independent voters back . . . boilerplate measures,” Noah Rothman recorded yesterday in Commentary. “But when asked if voters prefer stricter gun control measures, only a majority of Democrats agreed. Just one-third of independent voters and less than one-quarter of GOP survey respondents welcomed new gun control measures.” If the polls are to be believed, this reluctance is in part the product of a lack of trust in the federal government; in part the result of a belief that gun laws don’t actually work; and in part the result of harsh demarcation lines that have been draw in the broader culture wars. If the White House wants to overcome the intransigence, it will have to spend some capital.

RELATED: What Gun-Control Advocates Mean But Dare Not Say: Guns Should Be Confiscated

Is this initiative worth the costs? All told, it is difficult to see how it could be. Even if we presume that the plan is both legal and workable — and, given how tightly both USC18§921 and USC18§922 are written, I am as skeptical as the president was a few hours ago — the benefits would be microscopic. Were Obama to change the regulations, the Post confirms, he would ensnare only “those dealers who sell at least 50 guns annually” — a tiny fraction of those who sell firearms on the private market. He would not be “closing the gun-show loophole”; he would not be “extending background checks to private sales”; and he would not be elongating the three-day period during which the government is able to search for disqualifying information. Nor, for that matter, would he be banning a single “assault” weapon, limiting even one magazine, or confiscating even a part of a gun. He’d be posturing, and uncomfortably at that.

#share#It is customary for the proponents of “doing something!” to suppose that there is no downside to their experimentation. “If it saves one life,” the cliché holds, “it would be irresponsible not to try.” This is a questionable premise at the best of times; America, if you hadn’t noticed, is an unruly and liberty-focused sort of place. But in this case the argument is devoid of even its utilitarian merit. As he has learned all too painfully, President Obama is at present trapped inside a particularly knotty Catch-22: He believes that there are too many guns in America, and that getting rid of some of them would be helpful; but every time he says so — or hints at anything like it — he provokes a buying spree. Earlier this week, the satirical website The Onion reflected brutally upon this point:

Researchers at the Urban Institute published a study Friday confirming that a sharp increase in gun sales nationwide would be the most concrete result of the impassioned pro-gun-control speech that President Obama delivered following yesterday’s mass shooting in Oregon.

Should Obama follow through on his threat, he will once again be playing straight into his opponents’ hands. Thus far in 2015, Americans have bought at least 15.2 million guns — five times as many as exist in total in Britain or Australia. Ceteris paribus, they are on track to buy another five million by the end of the year. If the past is anything to go by, executive action will serve only to increase, not decrease, that number.

#related#And for what gain? The hope of catching a handful of high-volume private sellers and then walking into a buzzsaw in the courts? I am not a Democrat, nor am I much interested in further gun-control measures. But if I were, this development would alarm me. From all that I am told, Obama is effective because he is cool and calculating; because he has a solid grasp of when to fight and when to pull punches; because his instincts are sublime and exquisite and unprecedented in their magnificence. Is he really hoping to trade the most Lilliputian of regulatory advances for another 50 percent rise in the value of Smith & Wesson’s already burgeoning stocks?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review and the author of The Conservatarian Manifesto.

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