In the wake of the shooting deaths at a black church in South Carolina, President Obama sounded as if he has abandoned gun control laws, but his administration is steadily pursuing a wide variety of gun regulations through executive action.
At the state level, gun control advocates are advancing gun regulations in at least 31 legislatures.
Gun rights groups point out that the administration is pushing several restrictions at the Justice Department, ranging from rules on gun storage and high-powered pistols to a renewed effort to prohibit gun ownership by people who have been convicted of domestic abuse.
“Without a doubt, President Obama is making good on his promise to use his ‘phone’ and his ‘pen’ to circumvent Congress and the will of the American people,” said the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action in a statement prior to the church shootings in Charleston. It said Mr. Obama’s attempt “to act unilaterally on gun control is a real and continuing threat to Second Amendment liberties.”
In late May, the Justice Department said it plans to issue regulations expanding the criteria for barring certain people from gun ownership. The disclosure was in the administration’s Unified Agenda, a semiannual publication of proposed rules that the government intends to implement.
For example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is looking to prohibit the mentally ill from owning firearms and wants to finalize a rule by November to block domestic abusers from owning guns. The proposal pertaining to domestic abuse has been considered periodically since the Clinton administration.
The ATF proposed a rule earlier this year to ban “M855 green tip” rifle ammo, but withdrew the proposal in March after an outpouring of opposition from gun owners and the manufacturing industry.
While the NRA’s lobbying arm said the details of various proposals in the Unified Agenda “are indeed alarming the collection itself is actually a welcome (and rare) bit of transparency” from the administration.
“Browsing the Unified Agenda can give Americans a better idea of what federal agencies are doing, plan to do, or have been trying to do but have not yet finished,” the group said.
The administrative actions on guns are taking place even as the president complains with visible frustration about the failure of his gun control efforts. In several comments about the church massacre, Mr. Obama chided Americans for the availability of guns but said the political climate in Washington leaves him essentially powerless to move any new gun laws through Congress.
“The politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now,” Mr. Obama said. “Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”
A spokesman for Gun Owners of America said last week that Mr. Obama was overlooking recent gun massacres in other countries, such as the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in France, the Anders Breivik murders in Norway in 2011 that left 77 dead and a mass shooting in England in 2010. The group said concealed carry laws could have helped to prevent those attacks and the one in South Carolina.
“In each of these cases, the armed perpetrators ignored strict gun control laws in acquiring and carrying their weapons,” said GOA spokesman Erich Pratt. “One of the biggest problems at [the] South Carolina church is that the potential victims were disarmed by law.”
Mr. Pratt said in the Palmetto State, a concealed carry permit holder can carry a firearm in places of worship with permission from a church official.
“Unfortunately, the pastor [the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed] was an anti-gun activist,” he said. “As a state senator, the pastor had voted against concealed carry. But the president completely misses all of this. He ignores the fact that this was yet another example where a massacre took place in a ‘Gun Free Zone.’”
Gun control activists say such laws won’t help, pointing to studies such as one by the Harvard School of Public Health indicating that “where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.”
The president’s assessment of Capitol Hill is widely shared: Gun rights groups say Congress is more pro-gun than at any time in recent memory.
The NRA said the appropriations bill for Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies approved by the House this month contained several pro-gun measures, including an amendment to bar the ATF’s “discretion to arbitrarily reclassify ammunition for political reasons”; a prohibition on the use of federal funds for “Operation Choke Point,” a program that curtails some gun shops’ access to banking services; a prohibition on the use of funds to maintain any record or gun registry on multiple rifle or shotgun sales to law-abiding citizens; and a prohibition on the use of funds for collecting data regarding a person’s race or ethnicity when purchasing a firearm.
“All show Congress asserting its role as the peoples’ representatives against a president and administrative state that has embarked on a lawless crusade to suppress the right to keep and bear arms,” the NRA said.
Mr. Obama hasn’t sought major new gun laws since the Senate blocked the administration’s proposal in 2013 to impose background checks on guns sales after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre.
“We commenced a significant lobbying campaign to Congress, and we fell short,” said White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz. “Congress fell short.”
Advocates for stricter gun laws say that’s because too many lawmakers are beholden to the gun industry.
“The bottom line is Congress has failed to act because it’s filled with too many craven and irresponsible lap dogs for the corporate gun lobby,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in a statement to The Washington Times. “They hide behind deceptive and dangerous rhetoric and sell out the safety of the people they are supposed to represent.”
After previous mass shootings, Mr. Obama usually spoke about the need for gun control action in vague terms. Last week he sharpened his rhetoric, saying in America “it remains far too easy for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun.”
Law enforcement officials say suspect Dylann Roof purchased the weapon used in the shooting at a gun shop in Charleston.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized the president for his anti-gun rhetoric.
“This is the M.O. of this administration. Anytime there is an accident like this, the president is clear [that] he doesn’t like for Americans to have guns, and so he uses every opportunity — this being another one — to basically go parrot that message,” Mr. Perry said.
Mr. Perry, a Republican, was criticized himself for referring to the church massacre as an “accident.”
Another 2016 presidential candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, weighed in on the issue Friday by telling supporters that he is “pissed” by congressional inaction on guns.
“I’m pissed that after working hard in the state of Maryland to pass real gun control — laws that banned high-magazine weapons, increased licensing standards and required fingerprinting for handgun purchasers — Congress continues to drop the ball,” Mr. O’Malley wrote in an email.
Mr. Gross, of the Brady Campaign, said Americans should be pressuring Congress more to enact new gun laws.
“It’s up to the American people to make their voices heard and hold elected officials accountable,” he said. “Legislation to expand Brady background checks to online and gun show sales is sitting on the desks of members of Congress. That legislation would not prevent every tragedy, but it would make us all significantly safer by preventing guns from falling into dangerous hands every day. Yet Congress has done nothing.”
With scant prospect of new gun laws in Congress, gun control groups are taking their fight to state legislatures.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said the most prevalent efforts at the state level this year are bills that would bar domestic abusers from owning firearms (19 states), would require background checks on private gun sales (11 states), would impose stricter regulations on gun storage (13 states) and would allow families or law enforcement officials to seek gun-violence protective orders for people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others (nine states).
“The states are sending a loud and clear message to Congress: It’s time to finish the job and save lives by expanding Brady background checks to all gun sales,” Mr. Gross said.