What’s next on gun control: Obama and the loophole

December 29, 2015, 12:58pm

A member of the police stands outside a movie theatre where a man opened fire inside a crowded movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana in July. Picture: REUTERS  

By Paul Barrett, Business Day Live

THE next shoe to drop on gun control may come by mid-January, when President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order requiring everyone "in the business" of selling firearms to perform background checks.

Wait a second, you might be saying. Doesn’t federal law already oblige gun retailers to do computerised criminal checks via the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s data base? Yes and no.

Yes, when it comes to federally licensed dealers. But no, when you’re talking about people who lack federal licences and sell guns from their personal collections.

The problem is that an awful lot of firearms are sold in the latter fashion by individuals who aren’t technically gun retailers but who sell weapons at weekend gun shows or from their homes.

Forthcoming research by the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that 40% of all gun transfers occur without background checks (the so-called gun show loophole). Presumably this gap permits some criminals and mentally disabled people to buy guns who otherwise might be stopped.

Following another a year of shooting massacres of Americans, Mr Obama has let it be known from his holiday retreat in Hawaii, through unidentified advisers, that soon after New Year’s Day he plans to follow through on plans to expand the definition of who’s "in the business" of selling firearms — and who’s thus required to perform background checks. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, among others, has strongly backed this idea, and now Mr Obama appears ready to make its implementation one of the first major acts of his final year in office.

Another fan of expanded background checks: Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg and founder of Everytown for Gun Safety, the nation’s leading nonprofit organisation advocating tougher regulation of firearms. Mr Bloomberg visited Mr Obama at the White House last week to discuss gun-safety strategies.

The timing of the expected Obama move on background checks guarantees it will receive a hostile reaction from gun rights advocates, thousands of whom will gather next month in Las Vegas for the firearm industry’s annual Shooting, Hunting & Outdoor Trade Show, known as SHOT.

An ironic twist is that many of the attendees at SHOT each year are federally licensed bricks-and-mortar gun dealers who sometimes concede privately that they have no real problem with all gun sellers being forced to do background checks. These full-time retailers resent competition from casual unlicensed sellers at gun shows.

But the National Rifle Association’s (NRA’s) orthodoxy — that any additional gun control is merely a first step towards bans and confiscation — holds sway in the firearms world, making outward expressions of support among gun sellers for Mr Obama’s proposal unlikely.

While the enormous gathering in Las Vegas isn’t technically an NRA event, the group’s strong anti-Obama stance will almost certainly be evident there, and a fresh proposal to stiffen regulation may have the effect of pouring petrol on a fire already burning hot.

There will probably be calls to challenge Mr Obama’s authority to broaden the background check mandate without congressional involvement. Lawsuits and objections from pro-gun Republicans on Capitol Hill will likely follow, as has happened with other efforts by the administration to use executive authority in the environmental arena.

Another sure thing: Texas Senator Ted Cruz and other Republican presidential candidates will condemn the Obama proposal. In other words, the Great American Gun Debate will continue in 2016.