Details on President Obama's executive orders on guns, with Iowa reaction

In an emotional White House address, President Barack Obama announced today new executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence, including suicides as well as homicides and other crimes.

• Background Checks: Require all gun sellers — including online and at gun shows — to have a license and perform background checks. Have the FBI overhaul the existing background-check system.
• Enforcement: Improve the use of America’s existing gun laws, and add 200 new agents to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
• Mental Health: Remove barriers that can keep states from reporting and sharing information about people barred from owning guns for mental health reasons, and spend $500 million to increase access to mental health care.
• Technology: Push for research in gun safety technology, such as “smart guns” that can only be fired by authorized users. The research would be done by the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security. The White House notes the federal government is “the single largest purchaser of firearms in the country.”

I enclose below more details on steps the president ordered as well as Iowa political reaction. I will update this post as needed, since some of the Iowans in Congress neither released statements on this issue nor responded to my requests for comment.

This White House fact sheet explains the measures in more detail. The shorter version:

Keep guns out of the wrong hands through background checks

• The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is making clear that it doesn’t matter where you conduct your business—from a store, at gun shows, or over the Internet: If you’re in the business of selling firearms, you must get a license and conduct background checks.
• ATF is finalizing a rule to require background checks for people trying to buy some of the most dangerous weapons and other items through a trust, corporation, or other legal entity.
• Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch has sent a letter to States highlighting the importance of receiving complete criminal history records and criminal dispositions, information on persons disqualified because of a mental illness, and qualifying crimes of domestic violence.
• The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is overhauling the background check system to make it more effective and efficient. The envisioned improvements include processing background checks 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and improving notification of local authorities when certain prohibited persons unlawfully attempt to buy a gun. The FBI will hire more than 230 additional examiners and other staff to help process these background checks.

Make our communities safer from gun violence

• The Attorney General convened a call with U.S. Attorneys around the country to direct federal prosecutors to continue to focus on smart and effective enforcement of our gun laws.
• The President’s FY2017 budget will include funding for 200 new ATF agents and investigators to help enforce our gun laws.
• ATF has established an Internet Investigation Center to track illegal online firearms trafficking and is dedicating $4 million and additional personnel to enhance the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network.
• ATF is finalizing a rule to ensure that dealers who ship firearms notify law enforcement if their guns are lost or stolen in transit.
• The Attorney General issued a memo encouraging every U.S. Attorney’s Office to renew domestic violence outreach efforts.

Increase mental health treatment and reporting to the background check system

• The Administration is proposing a new $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care.
• The Social Security Administration has indicated that it will begin the rulemaking process to include information in the background check system about beneficiaries who are prohibited from possessing a firearm for mental health reasons.
• The Department of Health and Human Services is finalizing a rule to remove unnecessary legal barriers preventing States from reporting relevant information about people prohibited from possessing a gun for specific mental health reasons.

Shape the future of gun safety technology

• The President has directed the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security to conduct or sponsor research into gun safety technology
• The President has also directed the departments to review the availability of smart gun technology on a regular basis, and to explore potential ways to further its use and development to more broadly improve gun safety.

Dave Gilson’s 2013 post for Mother Jones debunking “10 pro-gun myths” included some statistics supporting the need for tighter checks:

Weak laws and loopholes backed by the gun lobby have made it easier for people to get guns illegally. And existing gun laws aren’t preventing guns from getting into the wrong hands: More than 75 percent of the weapons used in mass shootings between 1982 and 2012 were obtained legally.
As much as 40 percent of all gun sales involve private sellers and don’t require background checks. In a survey, 40 percent of prison inmates who used guns in their crimes said they’d gotten them this way. More than 80 percent of gun owners support closing this loophole.
• An investigation found that 62 percent of online gun sellers were willing to sell to buyers who said they couldn’t pass a background check.
• When researchers posed as illegal “straw” buyers, 20 percent of licensed California gun dealers agreed to sell handguns to them.

Ryan Foley and Eric Tucker underscored the potential limits of the new policies in their report for the Associated Press:

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 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. But it warned that people can be charged with a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison for selling as few as two firearms when there is evidence they are running a business, such as selling weapons in their original packaging and for a profit.

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, 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.'”

Senator Chuck Grassley press release, January 4:

Grassley Statement on President Obama’s Executive Gun Control Proposal

NEW HARTFORD, IOWA – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley made the following statement regarding President Obama’s announcement to use executive authority to tighten firearms controls:

“America’s response to recent tragedies involving guns should include a thoughtful review of not only how, but also why they happened. It should explore responsible, effective solutions to underlying problems and respect the fundamental, constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. This is exactly the deliberative process the Founding Fathers entrusted to the Legislative Branch of government, not the political agenda of one person.

“Over the course of the next few days, we’ll be taking a deep look at the President’s proposals, with an eye toward ensuring that the Second Amendment is preserved. Of course, the devil will be in the details of the regulations that he’s proposing. I’d remind everybody, though, that one of the agencies the President is proposing to give additional authority and resources to, is the same agency that allowed guns to walk into Mexico and then turn around and kill one of our own Customs and Border Patrol agents.

“History has taught us that simply focusing on limiting access to guns does not lead to drops in gun crimes. Maryland, Illinois, California, and even Washington, D.C., have some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, yet they have some of the highest numbers of gun-related crimes in the country.

“Congress has debated and continues to debate appropriate changes to America’s gun laws that respect Second Amendment rights. I offered a comprehensive proposal in 2013 and again late last year that focused on mental health, straw purchases and illicit trafficking. Both times, it received bipartisan support. I’m currently working across the aisle with Sen. Durbin on a bill to prevent all non-citizens who aren’t legal permanent residents from purchasing guns. I’ve also put forward a number of bills to improve our response to mental health issues that are often at the root of these tragedies.

“Our government, with its separation of powers and checks and balances, was designed to protect the rights of individuals, and ensure that our most challenging debates are held in Congress, where all Americans have a voice through their representatives. This can be a difficult and frustrating process, but it is how we ensure that the will and rights of the American people are respected and protected, and it is where this debate should take place.”

Senator Joni Ernst press release, January 5:

Ernst Vows to Protect Law-abiding Iowans’ Second Amendment Rights

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) released the following statement in response to President Obama’s executive actions that would restrict law-abiding Iowans’ Second Amendment rights:

“I am opposed to President Obama’s overreaching and unilateral actions; the American people should have a voice in this process instead of the President’s top-down approach that sidesteps Congress and the people we were elected to represent.

“There are laws currently in place to prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands and we must ensure that they are being enforced. In addition, we must continue to focus on improving access to mental health services.

“However, executive actions to restrict law-abiding citizens’ rights are simply not the answer. President Obama’s attempt to mandate these Second Amendment restrictions have fallen flat in Congress previously. Any further discussion about how best to respond to recent tragedies involving firearms should happen in Congress, where the American people have a voice through their representatives.

“I remain committed to working to counter the President’s overreaching actions, and protecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding Iowans.”

Representative Dave Loebsack (D, IA-02) press release, January 5:

Washington, D.C. – Congressman Dave Loebsack released the following statement today after President Obama laid out his proposal to help curb gun violence.

“As a native Iowan, I was raised with an appreciation for Iowa’s hunting traditions and am a strong supporter of our Second Amendment rights. I believe that improving our background check system can help to address the safety of our communities while also protecting those Second Amendment rights.

“I have long advocated for an increased investment in mental health services so that people who are struggling with mental health issues can get the treatment that they need. I am pleased to see the new $500 million investment in mental health outreach, the behavioral health workforce, and treatment options, and Congress should act swiftly to approve this funding request. The bottom line for me is that as a grandparent and a former educator married to a teacher, I believe our kids must be safe in school and I want Iowa communities to continue to be a great place to live and raise a family.”

Iowa Democratic Party press release, January 5:

DES MOINES – IDP Chair Dr. Andy McGuire issued the following statement in response to executive actions announced today by President Obama to reduce gun violence:

“I commend President Obama for taking commonsense steps today to help reduce gun violence and make our communities safer.

“The sad reality is that there is a gun violence epidemic in America today. Thousands of Americans are killed every year by guns, tearing apart families and communities all across our country. All the while Republicans in Congress have refused to take even the simplest steps to prevent gun violence — even as a vast majority of Americans believe that our elected leaders must take action.

“We can protect our Second Amendment rights, and prevent future gun violence. The President’s executive actions today are step in the right direction.”

UPDATE: The office of Representative David Young (R, IA-03) e-mailed this comment on January 6.

“I don’t question the President’s sincerity of wanting to do something to prevent gun violence, because we all want to prevent another victim of these tragedies. I am beginning a thorough review of the President’s proposal. I do begin with deep concerns with the President’s preference to work around Congress and the rule of law rather than engage Congress on an issue that involves constitutional authority. We need to find areas where we can find agreement and consensus like reforming our broken mental health care system and enforcing current laws. That approach could result in real relief for families in crisis and allow us to take tangible steps toward preventing future tragedies. Ultimately, our government will function most effectively when the duly elected President works alongside the members of a duly elected Congress to develop a commonsense approach to these tragedies while ensuring respect for our Second Amendment rights and the Constitution.”

Kim Weaver, who is running against Representative Steve King (R, IA-04), released this statement on January 6:

Sheldon, IA – Kim Weaver, Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District released a statement this morning following President Obama’s executive action to reduce gun violence:

“Current laws do exist to keep guns away from individuals who aren’t legally allowed to obtain them. However, the additional threat of mentally ill individuals and potential terrorists purchasing firearms necessitates background checks in situations where they currently are not required.

“The President’s initiatives to increase access to mental health care, renew domestic violence outreach efforts and strengthen enforcement of gun trafficking laws via additional funding and personnel are collectively a step in the right direction.

“I understand that gun ownership is an important right that is currently exercised by many responsible Iowans. However, the time has come to take a meaningful stand against the senseless acts of gun violence in this country. I applaud the efforts of the administration and look forward to constructive dialogue with people on all sides of this very important issue in order to ensure public safety while protecting the rights of responsible gun owners.”

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