Politics & Policy

Obama’s Executive Actions on Guns Will Help . . . Obama

President Obama announces his executive actions, January 5, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

This much can be said for President Barack Obama’s executive decrees on gun control: By shifting some federal funds into intervention for the mentally ill, he at least acknowledges, in some small part, one of the key problems.

As for the rest . . . 

President Obama will seek to rejigger some of the licensing rules in such a way as to cause some casual sellers of firearms to fall within the federal definition of “firearms dealer,” and thus oblige them to obtain federal dealers’ licenses and to perform background checks before selling a gun. What kind of well-thought-out criteria will the government use to determine that somebody is a firearms dealer under federal law? Whether he has a business card is one consideration (really) and whether he processes credit cards is another. Given the ubiquity of credit-card-processing technology attached to mobile phones, this could very well present a significant expansion of the legal definition of firearms dealer under federal law. The president insists that he is acting within preexisting statutory authority; he has been wrong about that before, and the inevitable litigation may show him to be wrong this time around, too: The relevant statutes make no reference to such considerations as the president is putting forward.

RELATED: Obama’s Gun-Control Order Is Dictatorial, and It Won’t Work

The so-called gun-show loophole, which doesn’t actually exist, refers to the fact that people who are not professionally engaged in the business of selling firearms are not obliged to become licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) if, say, they sell an old shotgun at a garage sale, or sell a brother-in-law an old deer rifle for $50. Similarly, if you hang a “For Sale” sign in the window of your 1983 Honda Prelude, you need not become a licensed automobile dealer. This purported loophole covers sales made anywhere, not only at gun shows or online. It isn’t clear that this would have any impact on criminals’ acquisitions of guns — unlicensed sales at gun shows are not a large source of firearms used in crimes — and, at any rate, the president is here a bit behind the times: Many gun shows keep FFL-holders on site to perform background checks, and online gun shops, which are licensed dealers, ship exclusively to other FFLs in order to secure legal transfer. Many casual sellers do the same thing, because they have strong incentives to secure legal transfer of the firearms they sell.  

We already have strong laws against straw purchases, but they are barely enforced.

The president has some better options. Gun shows are not major sources of firearms used in crimes, but straw buyers are. We already have strong laws against straw purchases, but they are barely enforced. In fact, a few years back, the U.S. attorney’s office responsible for blood-soaked Chicago (which had more than 2,000 shootings last year) announced that it would not prosecute straw-buyer cases at all; apparently, such crimes aren’t sexy enough to command the attention of federal prosecutors. President Obama has absolute power over the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys, and he could, if he were so inclined, simply order them to start prosecuting straw-buyer cases in high-crime locales such as Chicago and Detroit — or dismiss recalcitrant prosecutors and replace them with those more committed to doing their jobs. But actually prosecuting straw buyers, as opposed to hassling legal firearms dealers, is a great deal of work and usually results in putting some hoodlum’s nephew or girlfriend in prison. But the only way to bring the force of law down on straw purchases is to prosecute those cases.

#share#Ordinary street crime, as opposed to terrorist spectaculars such as the massacre in San Bernardino or psychosis-fueled mass shootings of the all-too-familiar sort, is involved in most of the murders in the United States. On terrorism, we may take it as indicative that the Department of Homeland Security recent informed Congress that it doesn’t even know how many visa violators there are in the United States, despite the fact that two 9/11 hijackers were visa overstayers who would have been deported under a functional system. That, too, is within the president’s legitimate theater of action.

RELATED: President Obama Has Let His Emotion Get the Better of His Judgment

On the matter of the mentally ill, our neglect of them is a national disgrace and a source of crime ranging from vagrancy to mass shootings. It also diminishes the quality of life in American cities. We should be doing more about that, and more federal funding won’t make a difference unless it is focused on the severely mentally ill (the Obama executive order doesn’t target its funding specifically enough). The bipartisan bill sponsored by Representative Tim Murphy (R., Penn.), currently stalled in Congress, would push the mental-health system toward addressing the severely mentally ill much more effectively.

#related#Meanwhile, absurdity reigns. Consider what is happening right now in New York City: The governor of New York has ordered the relocation of homeless people to shelters, forcibly if necessary, on winter nights when low temperatures are apt to kill them. But the mayor, Bill de Blasio, complains that forcible relocation is a violation of the rights of the homeless, who are often afflicted by serious mental illness and thus not in the best position to understand freezing to death as an exercise in personal autonomy. 

But all of this is far too much detail for President Obama, who thrives off one thing and one thing only: an enemy. In this case, the president has calculated that having the National Rifle Association as a foil in the final year of his failed presidency will provide some lubrication as he endeavors to jam his presidential legacy into the body politic. That won’t prevent much crime or secure treatment for any mentally ill Americans, but President Obama has always been at the top of President Obama’s agenda.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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