Senior congressional aides and sources in the gun-control community expect the White House to use its executive powers to tighten federal gun laws shortly after President Barack Obama returns from a Hawaiian vacation in early January.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday he anticipates a legal review to continue through the holidays.
Since the deadly shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., White House officials have been, as Earnest has put it, “scrubbing through the law” to determine whether and how Obama can use his constitutional authorities to make it harder for terrorists and other potential mass shooters to legally obtain firearms.
On both sides of the Capitol, sources involved in the guns debate say, as one senior House GOP leadership aide put it, “something is brewing on guns.”
The hot-button issue returned to the front burner of American politics following the lethal Islamic State-inspired California shooting.
Since, however, Republican lawmakers have blocked Democratic measures on stiffening gun laws; and Democrats have kept a mental health bill the GOP has tied to mass shootings from passing, saying they would rather close loopholes in gun laws first.
A recent CNN/ORC poll suggests the American public is siding with GOP arguments. The survey found a majority (52 percent) of those polled oppose tighter gun laws. And a Washington Post/ABC News poll found 53 percent are against the assault weapons ban the White House has endorsed.
So far, the White House is keeping its plans — and the details of its legal review — under wraps. But sources say the administration is zeroing in on the definition of just who is in the gun sales realm.
“What we expect is that they are going to better define what it means to be ‘in the business’ of selling firearms,” said a source with knowledge of the administration’s thinking. Congressional aides say they are hearing similar rumblings.
Under current laws, only licensed firearms dealers are required to conduct background checks on those trying to buy guns. What's more, the only individuals considered “in the business” are ones who must apply to be dealers — but that leaves countless people selling firearms without registering.
“Currently many people, even those who sell tons of guns each year, just say that they aren’t ‘in the business,’ or ‘it’s just a hobby,’ in order to get out of the licensing and its attendant background check requirement,” the source told Roll Call. “Because what ‘in the business’ means is so unclear, it’s very difficult and thus very rare for people to be prosecuted under this standard.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the status of the review and the expected coming executive action. Instead, he referred a reporter to Wednesday’s briefing, during which Earnest called GOP lawmakers’ resistance to changes the “central problem” in the administration’s push to enact tougher gun laws.
“So part of our solution is to consider the range of authorities that are vested in the executive branch to try to advance some of those common-sense policies,” Earnest said. “And we certainly do want to make sure that any sort of steps that the president would take have a strong legal basis in the law.”
Congressional Republicans and the White House are at a standoff over access to guns. That’s because GOP members hear “stricter gun laws” and process it as attack on their Second Amendment rights, while the administration describes tighter laws as “common sense steps” after a spate of mass shootings during Obama’s tenure.
The White House has bluntly accused many Republican lawmakers with being too afraid of the powerful National Rifle Association to advocate for even modest changes. But, in the wake of San Bernardino shootings and revelations that the shooters were inspired by the Islamic State, it is clear Obama intends to do what he can with or without congressional backing.
“There are common-sense things that can be done that would make our country safer, that would make it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to get their hands on a firearm,” Earnest said. “And we can do that without undermining the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.”
Obama used a prime-time Oval Office address earlier this month to, in part, turn up the pressure on Congress to act.
“To begin with, Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun,” he said. “What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi-automatic weapon? This is a matter of national security.”
But Republican members instantly rejected that call.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has countered the administration’s gun arguments by saying anyone, including American citizens, “can arbitrarily be placed on the no fly list,” adding officials must “respect due process.”
Obama on Wednesday hosted former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the Oval Office, with gun control the topic of conversation. As the chief executive of the “Big Apple,” Bloomberg was a major advocate of tightening access to firearms.
The White House said Obama and Bloomberg “discussed ways to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have access to them and what more could be done at the state and local level to help address gun violence in America.”
Obama also met on Dec. 4 with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, R-Ariz., who was gravely injured in a 2011 shooting in Tucson.
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