Frustrated by Congress' unwillingness to act in the wake of mass shootings that have killed or wounded dozens of people in recent years, President Barack Obama has decided to issue a series of executive orders this month to strengthen the nation's gun laws. The president's proposals, which are due to be fleshed out this week, are said to include a raft of common sense measures aimed at cracking down on unregulated gun sales and making it harder for people who shouldn't own firearms to get them — the sort of steps that lawmakers in Washington should have approved years ago. It's a pity that during his final year in office Mr. Obama finds himself in the position of having do Congress' work for it, but he is right to insist that he can act, at least to some degree, even if Congress won't.
Among the measures being considered by the president are expanding background checks for gun purchasers and increasing the reporting requirements for lost or stolen firearms. Currently, all federally licensed firearms dealers are required to conduct background checks on potential gun buyers, but many dealers who sell firearms privately, online or at local gun shows are exempt from the requirement. The so-called "gun show loophole" allows people with criminal records or a history of mental illness to buy weapons with virtually no questions asked and often with minimal records documenting the transaction.
Mr. Obama is considering new standards for what constitutes a "high-volume" gun dealer, which would make more sellers subject to the background check requirement. The White House is still working out the details of which sellers would be required to obtain federal licenses, but it will likely depend on such factors as how many guns they sell and how often, whether they advertise, rent space at gun shows and pay taxes on any profits they make.
The president also wants to beef up the reporting requirements for lost or stolen weapons to make it easier to trace the origins of guns used to commit crimes. A recent study by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced the origin of more than 5,000 firearms recovered by police in Maryland in 2014 and found that nearly half of them originated in other states. While the largest number came from neighboring Virginia and Pennsylvania, a significant number were purchased in more distant states such as Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, which have some of the weakest gun laws in the nation.
Mr. Obama did not initially make gun control a priority of his administration, but events have steadily brought the issue to the center of his agenda, starting with the mass shooting that nearly took the life of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — the fifth anniversary of which is this week — and then especially the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which left 28 people dead, including 20 children. Mr. Obama tried and failed to push tougher gun legislation through Congress in the aftermath of that tragedy; he also issued nearly two dozen executive orders to tighten gun laws, but those measures didn't include a major expansion of background checks for potential gun buyers or tougher reporting requirements.
In recent months, the grim image of the president seeking to come to terms with yet another senseless mass shooting has been a weekly occurrence. Mr. Obama plans to hold a town hall discussion Thursday on CNN to talk about the problem of gun violence, and he's also expected to make the issue one of the centerpieces of his State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 12. He's clearly disappointed in Congress' refusal to step up to the plate on gun law reform and feels this may be his last chance to make a dent in the problem. He also appears resigned to the fact that the most he may be able to accomplish is to issue executive orders that a potential Republican successor could nullify on his or her first day in office.
Nevertheless, Mr. Obama seems determined to go out swinging on the issue. In 2009 the Congressional Research Service estimated there were 310 million firearms in the U.S., not including weapons owned by the military. That's approximately one gun for every man, woman and child in America. In 2013, the last year for which statistics are available, some 33,000 Americans died from firearms-related homicides or suicides and another 84,000 were wounded. The annual cost in lives of gun violence in America exceeds that of most small wars. Mr. Obama may be limited in what he can do on his own to change that — what he can achieve is by no means the extent of what's necessary — but it would be unconscionable for him not to use every power at his disposal to try.