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Small-Bore? President Obama's Actions on Guns Make Marginal Changes

The conservative blogosphere is noticeably muted in response to Obama's latest actions on guns.

The conservative blogosphere, normally quick to accuse President Obama of overreach by executive order, is noticeably muted in response to his latest actions on guns.

That's true even regarding the administration's effort to increase the number of gun sellers who are federally licensed and therefore required to conduct background checks on gun buyers.

"Most of President Obama's new executive actions about guns are suggestions. Some of the suggestions deserve widespread support," said Prof. David Kopel of the University of Denver, a conservative constitutional expert.

Related: Obama: We Are Here to Prevent the Next Mass Shooting

Why such a subdued response? For the most part, the president's actions do not change existing law or expand legal restrictions on gun buyers or sellers.

No one is required to have a license to sell guns as a result of these new initiatives who wasn't also required by federal gun law to do so before.

"The White House 'executive action' accurately summarizes court cases interpreting this statute," Kopel says.

Long-standing federal law requires gun dealers, in fact anyone "engaged in the business of selling firearms," to be federally licensed.

The law further defines a dealer as someone who "devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular court of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood or profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms."

The law only specifically exempts people who makes occasional sales as a hobby or to enhance or dispose of a personal collection.

"The new White House initiative in this area is largely a public information campaign," said a senior administration official. "We want people who need to have a firearms license to know it."

Related: Obama's Last Stand: Gun Push Part of Renewed Democratic Goals

At the direction of the White House, the ATF, the federal agency charged with enforcing gun laws, posted information on its website clarifying who is legally required to get a federal firearms license.

According to the publication, gun sellers may need a federal firearms license if they represent themselves as dealers in guns, including taking orders and offering to buy guns to immediately resell. Other factors include whether a seller buys insurance to cover a firearms inventory, prints business cards, accepts credit card payments, repetitively buys and sell guns, and is looking to make a profit — whether the seller actually makes money or not.

"And it doesn't matter where the sales take place — gun shows, flea markets, or the Internet," the ATF says.

Two other steps announced by the White House — blocking the use of trusts or corporations to conduct otherwise prohibited purchases and requiring gun dealers to file a report when firearms are lost in transit — have been in the rulemaking process for over a year.

One measure, however, has raised the concern of gun-rights advocates. It involves the prohibition on selling guns to people with mental health problems.

Related: Gun Sale Background Checks Hit New High in December 2015

Under the federal gun law, sales are prohibited to anyone "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution."

But as part of the gun initiative, the White House said the Social Security Administration will undertake a rulemaking process to add mental health information it possesses to records that can be accessed during the background check process.

And an administration fact sheet says this rule would include people who: "have a documented mental health issue, receive disability benefits, and are unable to manage those benefits because of their mental impairment or who have been found by a state or federal court to be legally incompetent."

Says Prof. Kopel, "imposing a gun ban on Social beneficiaries who have designated a financial representative would contract almost half a century of established interpretation" of federal gun law.

An administration official, however, said federal regulations have long defined a person judged "mentally defective" to include people who are found to lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs.