After months of partisan bickering, there may finally be some good news coming out of Washington. Just over a month after the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., the Obama administration is beginning to follow through on its promises to pursue measures that reduce gun violence. On Wednesday, President Obama outlined the specific policy steps he plans to take.
In a press conference, Obama announced 23 executive orders he intends to sign immediately. These range from the mostly meaningless ("launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign") to the important ("nominate an ATF director", since the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has not had a permanent director for the past six years). These measures, since they relate primarily to the enforcement of current law and the execution of administrative duty, are purely the domain of the executive branch. Because they are executive responsibilities, they will not go through Congress.
Avoiding Congress is crucial for President Obama if he wants to make progress quickly. Thanks to partisan gridlock, the Obama administration cannot count on any measures that would have to pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling are also likely to demand Congressional attention for the better part of the next six months, pushing gun control to the backburner.
Any gun control measures that go through Congress are also susceptible to efforts from the NRA to prevent their passage, which the NRA has done to great effect in the past. By choosing instead to focus on executive orders and administrative policy, President Obama will have an easier time implementing certain policies he may be seeking.
Though the President's immediate plans are executive actions, he does have a legislative agenda he intends to push in the long term. The legislative measures he supports include strengthened background checks, expanded mental health coverage and most notably the reintroduction of the newly-popularassault weapons ban. The efficacy of such a ban aside, this measure is unlikely to make it though Congress.
Even ignoring Republican opposition, some Democratic lawmakers are not too interested in pursuing the measure. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has dismissed the assault weapons ban as unlikely to occur, an opinion which has been echoed by House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. If Reid and Hoyer are unsure if the assault weapons ban will make it through, they are unlikely to devote much time to it.
The assault weapons ban also illustrates the difficulties policymakers face in tackling gun violence. Research has demonstrated that the roots of gun violence in America are complicated and multi-faceted. Congress does not usually have an easy time tackling complicated and multi-faceted problems. Instead, it is simpler and easier to turn to an obvious scapegoat, even if that scapegoat really has little to no impact on gun violence. After Columbine, it was video games. Now, it’s mental illness and assault weapons. Though it may be easier to pass legislation against these scapegoats, that does not necessarily help in halting gun violence.
Guns are, despite what the NRA might claim, strongly linked to violent crime. Studies from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that the presence of a gun in a home is linked to a 2.7-fold increase in homicide risk and a 4.8-fold increase in suicide risk. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center tells us that where there are more guns, there are more homicides. Additionally, gun violence is closely intertwined with poverty and race.
Newtown may have been the impetus for current gun control efforts, but white kids in suburbs are not the group most at risk. As Chicago crime statistics attest, the victims of gun violence are overwhelmingly black, poor and male. The national mood currently leans toward stricter controls on firearms, though District of Columbia v. Heller states that the Second Amendment right to bear arms, though not unlimited, cannot be restricted by bans on entire classes of weapons. Controlling the amount of guns in the nation is one way to fight gun violence, but policymakers cannot simply ban guns.
Though there is no clear solution for gun violence, there are measures the Obama administration could take if it really wants to combat gun deaths. It could start by shifting away from a distracting focus on mental illness and violent media to instead focus on more concrete issues. The war on drugs and income inequality, for instance, are both closely linked to violent crime overall and homicide especially. Tackling either one of these issues would require expansive reform and a good deal of political capital, but would get much closer to the heart of the issue than bans on assault weapons. Even executive support for buyback programs, though they may not impact homicide, could at least reduce the risk of suicide. A buyback program is also less controversial and more constitutionally acceptable than bans on weapons.
Or the Obama administration could, as it seems inclined to do, stick to simplified answers like improving background checks and banning high-capacity magazines. These are good measures. They will help prevent another Newtown or Aurora. But if the administration wants to stop gun violence, if it wants to save all the victims of gun violence, then it must take broader steps. It seems that those steps may still be a long time coming.