- - Monday, January 11, 2016


Few issues are as polarizing as guns. Some Americans applaud President Obama’s recently announced series of “executive actions” on firearms. Many others deplore them. Which side is on target?

The actions are hardly as groundbreaking as some of the overheated rhetoric suggests. From a legal standpoint, many of them are not controversial. For example, the president is asking Congress to fund 200 additional Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents to enforce existing gun laws. He also wants $500 million to increase access to mental health care.

“Gun rights advocates have long called for vigorous enforcement of existing laws,” writes John Malcolm, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. “They also have noted that many of the mass shootings deplored by all Americans have been perpetrated by individuals suffering from severe, untreated mental illnesses.”

It’s possible that some of the president’s new actions, such as the ones that involve background checks, could trigger court challenges. According to Mr. Malcolm, much depends on how they’re implemented.

A lot of the animosity, I’m convinced, comes not from the content of the actions themselves, but from the skewed nature of the debate surrounding the gun issue. The fact is, many gun control advocates have poisoned the political atmosphere with some seriously questionable claims.

For example, we sometimes hear that if you buy a gun online, you aren’t subject to a background check. Wrong. You can make the actual purchase online, but you can’t just have it shipped directly to you. You have to pick it up from a federal firearms licensee, such as a gun store. And when you do, you must fill out the requisite forms, including ATF Form 4473, which initiates the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NCIS) process.

Or take the “gun show loophole.” We’ve been told repeatedly that because of the loophole, firearm purchases at gun shows don’t undergo a background check. But if you want to buy a firearm from a licensed firearms retailer at a gun show, you have to fill out the requisite federal firearms paperwork and, yes, go through an NCIS background check.

Now, a small portion of the sales at gun shows involve “peer-to-peer” sales between private individuals, and those are not subject to a background check. But it’s already illegal for even private individuals to sell a firearm to someone whom the seller “knows or has reasonable cause to believe” falls into the categories of people, such as felons, who are prohibited from owning a gun.

“The president cannot change criminal statutes governing requirements for which sellers must conduct background checks,” writes Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, in a piece on gun myths. “His new actions don’t do so and don’t claim to do so.”

That leads me to what I think is the main reason the president’s actions on gun control are coming under fire. Quite simply, they would not have prevented any of the violent incidents that sparked them in the first place. They are, like the tears that accompanied his announcement, political theater. They may bring accolades from anti-gun forces, but when it comes to reducing violence, they won’t make a dent.

The president’s actions are intended for individuals who buy guns and are subject to background checks. But criminals obtain their firearms in many other ways — robbing businesses, burglarizing homes, trading them for drugs. None of these activities will be affected one whit by the president’s actions.

Still, some ask, what about all the violence? Surely we must do something about that. They don’t realize that they’re responding to a media-generated perception, fueled by a few high-profile cases. The reality is, gun-related deaths (other than suicide) have actually declined over the last several years, even as gun ownership has risen dramatically.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take reasonable steps to curb the violence that does occur. Enforce existing gun laws, by all means. But let’s not pretend that we make anyone other than criminals safer when we take aim at the Second Amendment.

Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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