Obama keeps his promise on gun laws, but now states must act

President Obama promised action on gun violence, and has kept his word.KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

President Obama promised action on gun violence, and has kept his word.

In announcing executive action on guns this week, President Obama kept a promise.

Last October, just hours after the deadly attack at a community college in Oregon, the President addressed a nation reeling from yet another mass shooting.

The year had already been scarred by high-profile acts of gun violence — in Charleston, in Chattanooga — and by thousands of largely ignored shootings in cities across the country. And, listening to the President that evening was a nation increasingly fed up with a Congress unwilling to do anything about it.

So the President recommitted his administration to exploring what it could do — without interference from a gridlocked House and Senate — to keep us safe. And now, he has made good on that commitment.

The groups we lead, Everytown for Gun Safety and the National Urban League, long have called for requiring background checks for all gun sales — the single most effective step we can take to keep guns out of dangerous hands.


The President can’t take that step alone. He doesn’t make the laws. But he can clarify and enforce the gun laws already on the books. And, with that limited power, the President did what he could this week.

Obama’s executive actions start with a clarification of what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling guns and consequently required to get a dealer license. This small, but important, clarification will move a fraction of gun sellers out of the unregulated market — where millions of gun transfers happen without background checks every year.

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Aaron Eller, and his sons Liam (r.), 9, and Graham, 8, pause at a memorial in front of Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 18 in Charleston, S.C. The church was the site of another mass shooting.

Now more gun sellers will get licenses — and thus, be required to conduct criminal background checks on gun buyers. The newly clarified law will also help law enforcement hold high-volume gun sellers and traffickers accountable for fueling the black market for guns, flooding our streets and endangering our communities. Before, the vagueness of the standard made it very difficult to enforce.

It’s simple. Under current law, if you’re making a living selling guns, you’re a gun dealer — and you should be running background checks on your customers.

The background check system, though, is only as good as the records that states submit to it — which makes another of the President’s actions an important step forward.


The Department of Justice will encourage states to improve record reporting and make the federal system as comprehensive as possible. Continued progress in this area is certainly possible. Since the mass shooting in Newtown, the number of states failing to submit more than 100 mental health records per year has dropped from 19 to six. That’s impressive — but the system still has major gaps (incomplete criminal histories, missing domestic violence records) that DOJ will work with the states to plug.

At the same time, as a result of executive action, the FBI will improve how it communicates with state and local law enforcement. The FBI is developing a system that can send active alerts when a felon, domestic abuser, or other prohibited purchaser tries to buy a gun and fails a background check. With this information, local authorities can investigate the situation — and stop a tragedy before it happens.

For the millions of law-abiding gun owners in America, these executive actions won’t change a thing.

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Everytown for Gun Safety has long called for improved background checks on gun sales.

But for the criminals looking to arm themselves illegally, no questions asked? Or for the high-volume sellers who make a living feeding the criminal market? It just got harder for those buyers and sellers to conduct business as usual.

Americans — particularly those of us who live in cities and see firsthand the devastating toll that violence takes on our communities every day — can’t afford to let irresponsible gun sellers prosper, scot-free. We can’t afford to let the already vast, unlicensed market for guns grow unchecked.

The President promised action and delivered what he could. With Congress gridlocked, now it’s up to the states to do their part, close the loopholes in federal law, and ensure that all gun sellers do background checks — whether those sellers are licensed or unlicensed, or doing business at gun shows, online, or from anywhere.

Oregon did it through the legislature last year; Nevada and Maine are poised to do it through ballot initiatives in 2016.

Congress failed us. The President stepped up. The states can do the same — and close the loopholes that make it far too easy for criminals to get guns and destroy lives.

John Feinblatt is the president of Everytown for Gun Safety. Marc Morial is CEO of the National Urban League and a member of Everytown’s advisory board.

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