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President Obama's executive actions on gun control are the latest example of how the Democratic Party has re-embraced the issue of gun control.
The move could inspire more measures to limit gun violence by Democrats at the state level and potentially by Obama's successor if a Democrat wins in 2016.
It's not clear if Obama's actions will have much impact right now. The actions themselves are very limited, and some of the new regulations could face legal challenges by conservatives. And they are likely to be reversed if a Republican is elected president in November.
However, in pushing gun control, Obama is joining a new consensus in his party and looking to show he has done what he could, without the cooperation of Republicans in Congress, to address the numerous mass shootings during Obama's tenure in office.
For more than a decade after the 2000 election, Democrats largely avoided proposing new gun control measures because they were wary of annoying gun owners in key swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Some Democrats, including President Clinton, have argued Al Gore lost the 2000 election in part because of his strong support for gun control, although others in the party say this view is not supported by data.
Obama spoke little of gun control in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. But the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut where 26 people, including 20 children, were killed has pushed Democrats to take up the issue again.
“That was the worst day of my presidency, and it’s not something that I want to see repeated,” President Obama said in December 2012, two weeks after Newtown shooting.
He added, “All of us have to do some soul-searching, including me as president, that we allow a situation in which 20 precious small children are getting gunned down in their classroom. This is not something that I will be putting off.”
Democrats in blue states, including California, Delaware and Oregon, have passed measures since Sandy Hook to expand background checks and bar the carrying of concealed weapons on college campuses. Two new left-leaning groups, Americans for Responsible Solutions, run by the former-congresswoman and shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords and Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, have emerged as rivals to the National Rifle Association.
Hillary Clinton has made reducing gun violence one of the signature issues in her 2016 presidential campaign, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, previously an opponent of some gun control measures, has reversed himself, aware of the rising support for gun control among Democratic activists.
“This topic needs to be everywhere, it needs to be ubiquitous and if it is, we can build the momentum, and that’s when change happens,” said senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett in an interview with NBC News before Obama released his new proposal.
She added, “The most effective strategy is a federal strategy. In the absence of federal legislation, we have to do what we can do and part of what we can do is to create laws at the state and local level. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing at all.”
Governors in conservative-leaning states, meanwhile, have expanded gun rights, and all of the GOP 2016 candidates oppose greater gun control. So there will be a clear and obvious difference between the Democratic and Republican nominees in the November election.
"We don’t beat the bad guys by taking away our guns. We beat the bad guys by using our guns," said Texas U.S. senator and leading GOP 2016 candidate Ted Cruz.
Obama’s primary actions are to require people who sell a significant number of guns to get a federal license, which would compel them to conduct background checks, tighten rules for reporting when guns are lost or stolen and streamline the background check process overall.
Exactly how many gun sales the license provision affects is unknown, because data on gun purchases is limited. There are about 20 million background checks of gun sales conducted each year, with about 90,000 requests that are rejected. There is little data on how many gun sales happen outside of this background check process (liberal groups say the number could be as high as 40 percent of gun sales) or how many of those sales are done by entities that are selling a significant number of guns each year but not already licensed firearm dealers.
And Republicans in Congress now may refuse to fund Obama's proposal for an additional 200 ATF agents to work on gun policy.
Obama’s decision to take the executive action, like on immigration, is a clear sign that the administration sees no path to getting gun control passed through Congress. A coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats in the Senate in 2013 blocked a bill to expand background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting.
After the shooting in San Bernardino, California, a few weeks ago, Democrats in Congress pushed for provisions that would have made it easier for the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence issues and banned people on the FBI’s terror watchlist from buying guns.
Republicans opposed both measures, which failed to pass.
Would These Actions Actually Stop Shootings?
What’s also unclear is exactly how or if these background checks would directly stop gun violence. About 30,000 Americans die from guns each year. But America has at least three different kinds of gun challenges.
The mass shootings, such as what happened in California, Colorado and Oregon last year, constitute a small percentage of the gun deaths, even as they draw the most national attention.
A second problem is inner-city gun violence in communities like Baltimore, which had more than 300 murders in 2015, even as crime rates generally remain low. And thirdly, the majority of American gun deaths are actually suicides. (In 2013, according to the CDC, 21,175 U.S. gun deaths were suicides, compared to 11,208 people who died because of gun-related homicides.)
What Obama and other liberals regularly note is that many nations comparable to the United States, such as Australia, Germany and Great Britain, rarely have mass shootings and have much lower rates of gun deaths. The obvious difference is that both because of their laws and customs, these countries have far fewer guns in circulation than the United States.
America has a specific constitutional amendment (the Second) that is defined as allowing people to own guns, unlike other nations, and a culture that in many ways promotes gun ownership. While Democrats are increasingly willing to push greater gun control, they are not likely to try to discourage people from buying guns or propose to get rid of the Second Amendment.
Instead, the liberal approach, which Obama’s policy falls under, is in effect to try to impose a number of different restrictions in hopes of gradually reducing gun deaths. Obama's executive policy includes ideas, such as encouraging more research from the departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security on gun safety technology, that are untested and in effect an experiment.
"The recommendations that are being made by my team here are ones that are entirely consistent with the Second Amendment and people's lawful right to bear arms," Obama said Monday, adding that he understood "the strong tradition of gun ownership in this country" and that people have guns for hunting, self-protection and "other legitimate reasons."
Republican elected officials remain opposed to essentially this entire gun control agenda.
As conservatives note, millions of Americans own guns and aren’t involved in crimes or allowing their guns to be taken by criminals. A number of the mass shootings in recent years were from done by people whose guns were obtained legally, suggesting these policy efforts might not avert the worst shootings.