WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s move to tighten controls on guns could curb the unregulated buying and selling of weapons over the Internet and at gun shows. But the overall effect on violence in the U.S. could prove to be modest.
“It’s not ever going to be difficult to get a firearm, just like it’s not ever going to be difficult to get illegal drugs,” said James Jacobs, a New York University law school professor. “What makes us think that we can now create a regime that will make guns hard to obtain for someone who wants to obtain them?”
The president used his executive authority Tuesday to clarify that anyone “in the business” of selling firearms must obtain a federal license and conduct background checks on prospective buyers, regardless of where the sales take place.
Currently, many private sellers online and at gun shows do not bother to get licenses, and weapons sales over the Internet have become a booming business.
The White House and others can’t say how many transactions the step will block or how much bloodshed it may prevent.
But the new controls probably wouldn’t have prevented many of the grisly mass shootings around the country that have led to demands for tighter gun laws and may affect only a tiny fraction of the nation’s 30,000 annual gun deaths.
Studies in the last decade have shown that criminals are more likely to get guns directly from friends or other social connections than at gun shows or flea markets.
The president’s action “has potential impact – the degree or the type, it’s hard to predict,” said University of Pennsylvania professor Susan Sorenson, who studies violence prevention. “And it’s really important to acknowledge that we can’t just have one change and expect that to change things wildly.”
The president also called for the hiring of more than 230 additional examiners and other staff to process the millions of background checks received annually.
Yet even with added manpower, there’s no way to completely eliminate human error like the clerical mistake that allowed Dylann Roof, the young man charged in the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre, to buy a weapon even though he should have been disqualified because of a drug arrest.
The White House did not set a threshold for the number of guns someone has to sell to be covered by the licensing and background check requirement.
Theresa O’Rourke of Downers Grove, Illinois, said she hopes Obama’s action will deter illegal transactions that have deadly consequences. Her best friend, 36-year-old Jitka Vesel, was killed in 2011 by a stalker who had illegally purchased a gun from a seller he met through Armslist.com, an online gun site.
The seller was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to an illegal sale.
“People do it now because it’s easy,” O’Rourke said. “But if we say upfront that if you break the law and you are going to go to prison, most people are going to take a step back and say, ‘You know what? It’s not worth it.’”
She and other gun control advocates said too many individuals make a living selling guns without obtaining the $150 license and following requirements to conduct background checks, keep detailed sales records and face federal inspections.
Private sales – often carried out in person after Internet advertisements connect sellers and buyers – can be exploited by convicted felons, domestic abusers and others who cannot pass a background check, critics say.
Private sales have increasingly gone online over the last decade, but precise data is hard to pin down. GunBroker.com, which calls itself the world’s largest online auction site for firearms and accessories, says it has grown every year since 1999. It now boasts 750,000 active listings on any given day. Armslist claims 7 million site visits per month.
One in 20 guns advertised through Armslist last year was linked to an unlicensed seller who had listed at least 25 guns, according to recent research published by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A 2013 investigation by that group’s predecessor, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, found that more than 3 percent of potential buyers on Armslist had criminal records that would bar them from owning firearms.
Armslist, which was founded after Craigslist banned gun ads in 2007, says in a disclaimer on its website that it doesn’t get involved in transactions and that buyers and sellers must follow all state and federal gun laws. Still, guns sold through ads on the site have been linked to some fatal shootings.
A lawsuit filed in October alleges that an abusive husband purchased a handgun through an Armslist ad and used it to kill his wife and two other women at a salon in suburban Milwaukee in 2012. The man, Radcliffe Haughton, was able to buy the gun even though a judge had issued a restraining order days earlier that should have made him ineligible. He went online to say he was “looking to buy ASAP,” and made the purchase in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, the lawsuit says.
Armslist owner Jonathan Gibbon called Obama’s moves “well-meaning but ultimately ineffective.” He said many private sellers want to conduct background checks but are discouraged by a “costly and burdensome” system that requires them to go to licensed dealers and pay fees.
“Further scrutiny of law-abiding people will not stop criminals,” he said.
Everytown president John Feinblatt called the clarification a welcome if modest step.
“It puts them on notice and, if accompanied with aggressive enforcement, has the potential to narrow the number of unlicensed dealers who are selling without background checks,” he said. “But even so, millions of guns will be sold online without background checks unless Congress or states pass universal background checks, as 18 states have done on their own.”
The Obama administration appeared determined to tamp down expectations, with Obama saying he realizes his actions won’t stop all gun violence.
“Obviously the president is not able to take strong measures because that’s going to require Congress to act,” said Philip Cook, a Duke University professor. “But if he is able to disrupt a relative handful of sales and save a handful of lives, that may well be worthwhile.”
He added: “What we’re looking at here is a low-cost intervention with the possibility of some payoff.”
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s plan to expand background checks and enact other measures to combat gun violence through executive actions drew mixed reviews Tuesday from Colorado politicians.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said Obama had taken “divisive, unilateral action” that infringed upon the rights of gun owners.
“Executive orders cannot, and should not, stand in place of the Constitution,” Gardner said. “The desire on the part of the president to govern the entire country based on his own whims is dangerous. I empathize with the desire of many to do something about recent incidences of violence in our country. But these executive actions would not have prevented many of the tragedies our communities have faced.”
Gardner added that he would continue to urge his colleagues in Congress to take legislative steps to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and to “better enforce the countless regulations on gun ownership already on the books.”
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, echoed Gardner’s sentiment and added that the legality of the executive actions would be challenged.
“The president’s overreaching proposals to restrict the Second Amendment for law-abiding citizens have already been debated and rejected by the Senate,” Tipton said. “Yet the president is playing politics rather than working with Congress to advance solutions. These executive orders, like many of the president’s previous such actions, will be challenged and likely defeated in the courts.”
But other Colorado politicians were more supportive of the efforts, citing the state’s expanded background checks as an example of how improved safety standards save lives.
“Background checks keep guns out of the wrong hands,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper in a statement soon after the president’s announcement. “In Colorado, expanded background checks prevented more than 27,000 illegal purchases since 2012, including more than 100 denials based on prior arrest or conviction of homicide. The president’s orders are an important step in saving lives across the country.”
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has advocated for expanding background checks, and has previously supported similar legislative efforts in the U.S. Senate. Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for Bennet, told The Durango Herald that the president’s executive orders built off of previous efforts but that Congress needed to act further.
“Senator Bennet has voted for the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill to require common-sense background checks on most gun sales, like we’ve done here in Colorado,” Bozzi said. “He has also supported efforts to improve the background check system, to prevent criminals and terrorists from purchasing guns, and to increase support for mental health services. The president’s actions today are consistent with these initiatives and Congress still needs to act.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. Edward Graham is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.