But Obama's remarks served another purpose, too. He was trying to make sure the crusade to curb gun violence continues beyond 2016 when he is no longer in the White House.
The new initiative, which he unveiled in the East Room, consists primarily of executive orders. The most controversial of these seeks to address what’s become known as the “gun show loophole” -- the fact that private sales of firearms, the kind that frequently take place at gun shows, are not subject to the background checks that accompany sales through licensed gun dealers.
The case for closing the loophole is real. As Obama noted, recent studies by researchers at Johns Hopkins University suggest strongly, though not conclusively, that background checks reduce gun violence. But Obama’s new regulations won’t actually close the gun show loophole. They will merely shrink it and, from the looks of things, they will not shrink it by much.
Basically, the federal government will require background checks for sales by any person “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, even if that person is not a commercial seller. An example, as Greg Sargent explained at The Washington Post, could be somebody who rents a regular table at gun shows, has his or her own business cards, or processes credit card transactions.
Nobody seems to think these tweaks will significantly reduce gun violence. The administration hasn’t even tried to quantify how many more background checks the new rules would require.
Expectations for the other executive orders are similarly modest. And while Obama also called for more funding of mental health treatment and more staff for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which must enforce existing gun laws, those steps would require congressional action.
“It won’t happen during this Congress. It won’t happen during my presidency.” President Barack Obama
To the president’s critics, the limited potential of the new gun rules make them (at best) an empty gesture or (at worst) a cynical ploy to rile up his liberal supporters. The National Rifle Association was quick to point out that better background checks probably wouldn’t have stopped the high-profile massacres that Obama and other supporters of gun legislation like to cite.
Obama anticipated such arguments and spoke to those critics directly. He noted that background checks might have a bigger effect on other forms of gun violence, like individual homicides and suicides, and argued that even incremental progress is worthwhile if it saves a few lives. “Maybe we can try to stop one act of evil,” Obama said.
But the most passionate part of Obama’s pitch on Tuesday was not about the new rules. It was about the problem they seek to address -- and what steps should come next.
As he enters the final year of his presidency, and prepares to give next week’s State of the Union address while standing before a hostile Republican Congress, Obama knows that he will have few opportunities to push a legislative agenda. But he is also a big believer in the “long game” -- that progress can take years, if not decades, and that sometimes presidents must start a legislative campaign in the hopes that a successor can complete it.
“It will be hard, and it won’t happen overnight,” Obama said. “It won’t happen during this Congress. It won’t happen during my presidency.”
Obama seemed more determined than rueful when he said that, and that may be because he knows a presidential election actually represents the best possible chance to pass gun legislation. The power of the NRA and its allies lies in their intensity. While polls suggest majorities support “common-sense” measures like background checks, the minority who oppose new laws tend to feel more passionately about it -- and are usually paying more attention.
But presidential campaigns focus public attention on policy choices and, on Election Day, they bring a broader, more representative slice of the public to the polls. That can create a political environment in which gun legislation can pass. It’s no coincidence that the Brady Bill, the last serious federal effort at reducing gun violence, passed one year after the 1992 elections -- following a campaign in which one candidate, Bill Clinton, took a strong stand in support of it.
This election is likely to feature yet another Clinton taking yet another strong stand in favor of gun legislation. Whether she and the cause of new gun legislation prevail is, of course, an open question. It will depend on whether the supporters of legislation can, for a change, match the fervor of opponents.
Obama knows this -- and appealed directly to supporters, practically begging them to vote against lawmakers and candidates who oppose gun legislation: “If you make it hard for them to block those laws, they’ll change course, I promise you.”
The president's associates have spoken many times about Obama’s emotional reaction to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and his meeting with the families of the victims afterward. Obama himself has called the shooting the most difficult day of his presidency -- and described his inability to address it, with new legislation, as his greatest frustration.
On Tuesday, Obama was doing what he could to make sure the next president keeps at it. The effort could be futile or even misplaced. But it’s easy to see why he’s trying.
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