President Obama will announce a series of executive orders Tuesday to tackle gun violence, the first major effort to institute federal gun control after a bipartisan background check bill failed in the Senate in 2013.
Since the president is acting without Congress, the plan is fairly limited in what it can actually accomplish. But its sights are set on a typically untouchable target: gun dealers and manufacturers.
The gun industry has enjoyed a significant upper hand for decades, while mass shooting after mass shooting has failed to yield any meaningful gun control. A Bush-era law rendered the gun industry largely immune to legal challenges, which makes it hard to hold shady dealers accountable for illegal sales. Online sales, now a fixture of the firearms marketplace, are exempt from most laws governing dealers. And enforcement of current laws governing gun dealers is weak.
The meat of the executive action will try to address these problems, notably by requiring all gun sellers to get a license and conduct background checks no matter where they’re selling them. That means online dealers and gun show vendors, many of whom are unlicensed go-tos for people looking to avoid background checks, will have to get approval from federal law enforcement. But the order doesn’t specify how many guns someone will need to sell in order to be considered a dealer.
The orders will also clarify rules about who in a gun business is responsible for reporting stolen or lost guns. In addition, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) will get new funding to hire more people for background checks and to centralize illegal gun tracking.
The action will also require background checks for people who buy weapons through trusts or corporations, an increasingly common way to avoid detection when buying serious firearms like machine guns. For instance, former Los Angeles police officer Chris Dorner said he used one such trust to buy silencers and a short-barreled rifle without a background check before going on a multi-day shooting rampage. The White House notes that gun purchases through trust and corporations has risen from fewer than 900 applications to 90,000 applications in 14 years.
While many gun control measures like universal background checks are actually popular with gun owners and NRA members, the gun industry has lavished millions of dollars on lawmakers to successfully torpedo meaningful gun reform at the federal and state level, while pushing legislation to allow more guns in more places. The industry, mainly through the National Rifle Association, is one of the most influential spenders in Congress.
The NRA is already sounding the alarm, and the Republican lawmakers who enjoy 96 percent of the industry’s political spending are following suit. But Obama didn’t pioneer the idea to use executive action to combat guns. Former President George H.W. Bush used an executive order in 1989 to categorically ban the import of most foreign-made semiautomatic assault rifles. Despite blowback from his party, Bush justified the rule by pointing to a recent mass shooting that had killed five children and wounded 32 others.