What’s So Appealing About Obama’s Executive Actions On Guns

A visitor of DVC Indoor Shooting Centre fires a pistol on their range in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia
Photograph by Andy Clark — Reuters

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama unveiled executive actions on guns, which, among other things, are designed to make gun sales easier to monitor and keep guns out of the hands of people who are prohibited from having them because of criminal and certain mental health records. Although many consider the executive actions a step forward, they easily can be continued or undone by the next President.

Public support for Obama’s ideas have been remarkable. Two-thirds of Americans back the President’s measures, according to a CNN/ORC poll. And the support is strong – 43% say they strongly favor the President’s plans, while 21% say they strongly oppose the measures. The support is also widespread and broad – the majority of people in all regions of the country and of all political persuasions (85% Democrats, 65% of Independents, and 51% of Republicans) stand behind the actions. And gun owners? 57% say they support the President’s executive actions. Meanwhile, 57% say that the measures would not reduce the number of people killed by guns.

Earlier this year, I published research showing that people can think a gun policy could be effective and still be against it. They likely give priority to countervailing factors, such as government overreach, rather than reducing gun violence. This week, polls suggest the opposite: people do not think that the executive actions will reduce the number of people killed by gun, but they solidly support the proposals.

To get a better understanding as to why, pollsters could have asked two other questions: 1. Would the measures result in more gun-related deaths? 2. Do the measures influence Americans’ confidence in the system? The poll results suggest that people want more officers conducting background checks; they want the same standards applied to those who buy a gun from a person at a gun show or online or at a physical store; they want to remove the background check work-around of buying a gun through a trust or corporation; and they want the feds to do a better job of notifying local law enforcement when people in their communities who are prohibited from purchasing a gun attempt to buy one.

When it comes to doing background checks on people who want to buy a gun, Americans want a system with greater integrity.

Expanding background checks is of particular importance to Americans. Shortly after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, 89% of the U.S. population, including 84% of gun owners and 74% of NRA members, supported universal background checks. And Congress did nothing. Or, more accurately, Congress voted down the bi-partisan compromise by U.S. senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that would have required background checks of gun show and online purchasers at the same time as it exempted checks when sales involved family and friends. In contrast, about a dozen states require a background check at the point of transfer; some require checks on persons who purchase any kind of gun and some require it only on those who buy a handgun. If two senators with “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association can’t get traction, who can?

Evidently, it’s possible that an exasperated president with a year left in office can.

For years, support for universal background checks hasn’t changed much: it has ranged from 88% to 93% in every Quinnipiac University poll since the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings. So is, as House Speaker Paul Ryan asserts, President Obama subverting Congress or is Congress subverting the will of the people? Maybe it is some of both.

It certainly would be a big step forward if members of Congress and the President could work together on this issue. But even the 54% of the population that opposes the President using executive actions to implement the gun-related policies probably recognizes that such collaboration is, well, a longshot. Americans support the wide range of President Obama’s executive actions on guns. They also want representative government to work.

Susan B. Sorenson is a professor of social policy and of health and societies at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice.


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