Clinton Throws Down a Challenge to Obama on Guns
Policy + Politics

Clinton Throws Down a Challenge to Obama on Guns

REUTERS/Brian C. Frank

In the wake of the shootings at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., last week, President Obama vented his rage and frustration over his inability to persuade Congress to enact serious gun control measures. He called it a “shameful day” in the nation’s capital and promised that eventually, “I believe we’re going to be able to get this done.”

Obama has pushed gun control efforts in the past, especially after the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn. But his proposals for universal background checks and other concrete measures hit a brick wall on Capitol Hill, where the National Rifle Association holds sway over many members of the Senate and House.

Related: After shooting, angry Obama blasts U.S. gun politics

On Monday, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled her own ambitious gun control agenda. She wants to close a major loophole in the federal gun law that allows “high volume” sellers of semi-automatic weapons at gun shows and on the Internet to avoid being licensed and having to do background checks of prospective buyers, as is required of retail gun dealers. Her plan would also repeal a law that protects gun manufacturers from being held liable for gun violence.

The former secretary of state called for closing another loophole that enables a convicted felon to skirt a prohibition on purchasing guns if a gun dealer fails to complete a background check within three days. Dylan Roof -- the 21-year-old white supremacist who shot and killed nine members of an historic black church in Charleston, S.C., in June -- managed to slip through that loophole to purchase the gun he used in the killings.

Clinton vowed to take executive action if necessary to circumvent Congress and implement her new provisions.

“I want to work with the Congress,” Clinton said during a town hall meeting in Hollis, N.H. “But I will also look for ways as president to try to tighten some of these checks – to get more of the background checks done on more of the sales at gun shows and online than we currently have.”

Related: Obama Has Given Up on Gun Control

Clinton campaign aides told reporters that a new Democratic administration theoretically could accomplish such an end-run by having the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms more clearly define what constitutes being in the business of selling firearms and thus subject to the same rules covering regulated gun dealers.

“It’s a very smart idea to address that regulation to better define what it means to be a gun dealer so that we have those folks who are selling guns in high numbers doing background checks for those sales,” said Chelsea Parsons, vice president for guns and criminal policy at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

It wasn’t clear from the proposal precisely how many guns a person would have to sell in order to be classified as “in the business.” Moreover, any proposed executive order mandating a substantial expansion of background checks of gun purchasers and other constraints on sales would inevitably draw strong political and legal challenges from gun rights advocates and lawmakers.

Related: Clinton to outline gun control plan during Monday campaign stops

Clinton’s call for dramatic changes in the federal gun control laws by executive fiat raises the question of why Obama, who hasn’t been shy about using his executive powers to override his Republican foes in Congress, hasn’t followed that path.

In fairness, Obama has attempted to use his executive authority to address the mounting problem of gun-related violence and mass shootings – but never in a way that would invite the kind of bruising legal and political battle he is now facing on his immigration and Obamacare actions.

In July, the administration quietly launched a new plan to issue background checks on millions of potential gun-buyers, The Los Angeles Times reported. Under orders from the president, the Social Security Administration developing a policy that might add millions of beneficiaries to the National Instant Criminal Background Check Systems. In effect, people who are deemed to be mentally incapable of handling their own disability payments and those receiving payments for mental-health related problems would be reported to the NICS to help flag people who shouldn’t be in the possession of guns.

Related: Charleston Massacre May Rekindle Gun Control Debate

And back in January 2013, after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, Obama signed 23 executive orders related to gun safety aimed at enhancing existing databases for background checks and stepping up law enforcement to crack down on illegal possession of handguns. But the administration signaled that any future effort to expand the scope of background checks, limit the availability of assault weapons or limit the size of ammunition magazines would have to be done through the legislative process.

Clinton’s bold proposal may have changed the political calculus, however. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that the administration is considering whether Obama should take additional executive action to enforce stronger gun control measures. “The president has frequently pushed his team to consider a range of executive actions that could more effectively keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who shouldn’t have access to them,” Earnest said. “That’s something that is ongoing here.”