Last week, President Obama pledged to use his right of Executive Order to pass stricter gun legislation, before he leaves office at the end of this year. Following a meeting with US Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the 4th January, Obama is set to bypass Congress and widen background checks on those wishing to purchase firearms. Following the meeting, the tearful President unveiled his plans. Included are aims for Congress to invest $500m (£339m) in mental healthcare, for the FBI to increase workforce processing background checks by 50%, and for states to provide information on those disqualified due to mental illness or domestic violence. It is likely that the President will elaborate further on these plans ahead of his annual State of the Union address, set for 12th January.
An Executive Order (also known as a proclamation), is a directive issued by the President, as head of the executive branch, without any input from the judicial or legislative branches of government, and is generally used to overrule Congress. Debates over the use of Executive Orders and their validity typically boil down to political bickering. The party that is out of the White House usually rails against them, due to the fact that they bypass Congress, but will often use them when it gets returns to power.
Pervasive opposition to the new legislation has emerged since the President’s speech. The National Rifle Association (NRA) spokeswoman Jenifer Baker claimed: “the President’s gun control agenda will only make it harder for law-abiding citizens to exercise their right to self-defence”
However, Obama’s plans have been prompted by an array of gun-attacks - many of which have seemingly been caused by uninhibited access to firearms. In response to the Sandy Hook Massacre in 2012, the President sought to reduce gun-related homicides, stating “we have been through this too many times… we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics”. Three years on, the US still averages more than one mass shooting per day. In July, Obama admitted that gun control laws are the ‘greatest frustration’ of his Presidency, testifying “The United States is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient, common-sense gun safety laws, even in the face of repeated mass killings.”
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump has vowed to ‘unsign’ Obama’s plan if he becomes President, explaining, “There’s an assault on the Second Amendment… the system’s supposed to be you get the Democrats, you get the Republicans, and you make deals. He can’t do that… so he’s going to sign another Executive Order… I will veto”. Republican general opinion is somewhat reflected in Trump’s remarks, and echoed by other Republican Presidential candidates. Jeb Bush controversially responded to the Umpqua Community College shooting with “stuff happens; there’s always a crisis”. Meanwhile, Ben Carson has revealed he would “never advocate anything to interfere with Second Amendment rights”. Likewise, Ted Cruz has also commented on the ‘unconstitutional’ nature of Obama’s actions.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton, like the majority of Democrats, supports gun control – believing that local police should be able to track gun information, that lawsuits against gun manufacturers concerning gun violence should be legal, and that assault weapons should be kept off the streets. Bernie Sanders has also spoken in favour of increased legislation, stating “I think the vast majority of the American people… including gun owners… want sensible gun control legislation”.
In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting last month, which left 14 dead, 53% of respondent to a Washington Post/ABC News poll opposed a ban on assault weapons. When asked to select the best response to terrorism, 47% said encouraging more people to carry guns legally, while 42% preferred enacting stricter gun control laws.
It is likely that Obama’s plans to expand background checks will catalyse Republican opposition that will be channelled through the Presidential election campaign. It is also likely that his approach will further hinder the potential for cross-party agreement. Indeed, even if – as predicted by current polls – the Democrats take office again, it would be difficult for the party to implement any further gun control legislation, given that Republicans dominate both the Senate and House of Representatives.