President Barack Obama has once again used his pen to make changes in an area where Congress has refused to act. The executive orders on gun control unveiled by an emotional Obama on Tuesday in an address from the East Room of the White House are, however, modest tweaks to existing laws and do not merit the doomsday rhetoric of presidential candidates like Donald Trump or Marco Rubio, who immediately labeled them an attack on the Constitution.
The use of executive orders to advance policy changes in areas where Congress has refused to act is inherently suspect, and we have joined Republicans and others in the past in questioning the wisdom of using that approach rather than taking the patient, and often painstaking, path to legislation. That path ensures a robust debate, requires compromise and, when successful, leads to more permanent and often far more fundamental changes.
But the orders announced Monday are modest tweaks to existing law, and appear to be well within Obama’s authority. It should surprise no one that in the face of congressional opposition, the president is seeking to make what changes he can under authority of the laws already on the books. Nor should these tweaks be especially alarming to those who favor a robust interpretation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
The most substantial changes involve a new federal rule defining who must register as a gun dealer, one that is aimed at sweeping in many who sell guns on the Internet. That will mean many gun sales that now proceed without a background check will require one, as storefront sales already do.
Inevitably, some sellers will resist the label of gun dealer, and will challenge this rule in court. That is their right. But others will be glad to know that they will no longer risk unknowingly selling weapons to potentially dangerous individuals already barred from patronizing the local gun shop.
All executive orders should be scrutinized given the inherent unilateralism they represent. For example, Obama’s announcement that the attorney general has urged governors to see that more information about mental health histories of would-be gun buyers be shared with the government raises privacy considerations that warrant careful handling.
On balance, though, the president’s actions show restraint. Research on how technology can make guns safer? More staff to more quickly and thoroughly process background checks? A promise to seek Congress’ approval for the parts of his plan that will require significant new funding?
Some Democrats and gun control advocates have hailed the president’s announcement as historic. It isn’t. The changes are modest, and they won’t end the debate over, nor relieve Congress of its responsibility to address, the proper balance in this country between gun rights and gun safety.
What else is changing:
— Federal agents will now process background checks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The FBI will hire 240 more agents to handle the checks more quickly.
— Obama will ask Congress for $500 million to enhance access to mental health care and to pay for 200 more ATF agents to work on weapons investigations.
— Governors will be urged to find ways to share more information with the federal background database.
—The Pentagon and other agencies will be directed to step up research into how technology can make guns safer.
— The Dallas Morning News,