As the nation continues to focus on the threat of Islamic terrorism, President Obama made it clear in his final radio address of 2015 that his focus is still on finding ways to make life harder for millions of law-abiding gun owners. After referencing the Newtown tragedy of 2012 and the near-fatal shooting of Gabby Giffords, Obama said he was finally prepared to do something about America’s “epidemic of gun violence.”
“Three years ago, a bipartisan, commonsense bill would have required background checks for virtually everyone who buys a gun,” Obama said. “But the gun lobby mobilized against it. And the Senate blocked it.”
After dismissing the seemingly-reasonable argument that this bill would have done nothing to prevent most of the high-profile shootings that have alarmed the country, Obama said that he was preparing to take unilateral action:
A few months ago, I directed my team at the White House to look into any new actions I can take to help reduce gun violence. And on Monday, I’ll meet with our Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, to discuss our options. Because I get too many letters from parents, and teachers, and kids, to sit around and do nothing. I get letters from responsible gun owners who grieve with us every time these tragedies happen; who share my belief that the Second Amendment guarantees a right to bear arms; and who share my belief we can protect that right while keeping an irresponsible, dangerous few from inflicting harm on a massive scale.
Any predictions about the form these executive orders might take remains purely speculative, but the consensus seems to be that Obama wants to expand the number of gun sellers who must run background checks. Background checks are already almost universal, but exemptions exist for those who only occasionally sell guns as part of their involvement in the hobby. The Obama thesis suggests that there is a significant number of unlicensed gun dealers taking advantage of that exemption, creating a dangerous environment where criminals can arm themselves in defiance of the law.
It’s a thesis typically expressed by an all-too-familiar shorthand: The gun show loophole. Any doubts as to how effectively Democrats have used this loophole can be erased by a 2015 Pew Research poll. According to the survey, 85% of Americans support expanding background checks to include gun show purchases and private gun sales. This mammoth consensus speaks to the power of propaganda, and it bestows upon Obama the political (if not legal) justification to take executive action.
Knowing that any factual missteps would only weaken his plea, Obama has avoided making specific claims about how many rogue gun dealers would be thwarted by expanding licensing requirements. Anti-gun activists, however, commonly insist that 40% of guns in America are sold without any background checks at all. This statistic has its origins in a small 1997 Justice Department survey that – once corrected for rounding tricks and stripped of those who received guns as gifts – leaves a truer tally of 26%.
A better look at the reality of the landscape might start with another Justice Department survey from 2001 – it found that only 0.7% of inmates acquired their firearms from a gun show.
At best, President Obama’s attempt to broaden the definition of those involved “in the business of selling firearms” is a cheap and meaningless gesture meant to appease the liberal base at the outset of an election year. At worst, it will give the federal government the unprecedented authority to govern private transactions and force small-scale sellers to pony up exorbitant and unnecessary licensing fees. And all of this is built on two pervasive urban legends: 1, that guns shows are lawless conventions where thousands of unlicensed dealers hand firearms to criminals, and, 2, that these tragic mass shootings are somehow related to this problem.
“We know that we can’t stop every act of violence,” Obama said in his address. “But what if we tried to stop even one?”
That’s spurious reasoning under the best of circumstances; in this case, though, it’s worth wondering if Obama’s executive order will accomplish even that.