Last week, President Obama pledged to use his right to Executive Order to enforce tighter gun legislation before he leaves office in January next year.
These controversial measures were decided upon following a meeting with US Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, on 4th January, and are fuelled by Obama’s desire to bypass Congress and widen background checks on those wishing to purchase firearms.
Following the meeting, the tearful President unveiled his plans to the world’s media. They include a Congressional investment of $500m (£339m) in mental healthcare, an increase in FBI forces to facilitate a 50% increase in firearm background checks, and for states to provide information on those disqualified from the right to the Second Amendment due to mental illness or domestic violence. It is likely that the President will elaborate further on these plans ahead of his annual State of the Union address, set for 12th January.
It is the Presidential right to the Executive Order that has given Obama the ability to bypass the usually grid locked, divided Congress; an Executive Order is a directive issued by the President, as head of the Executive branch, without any input from the judicial or legislative branches of government. Debates over the use of Executive Orders and their validity typically boil down to political bickering. The party that is out of the White House usually rails against them, but will often vote in favour of them when they return to power.
As could be expected, pervasive opposition to the new legislation has risen. A National Rifle Association (NRA) spokeswoman, Jennifer Baker, claimed “the President’s gun control agenda will only make it harder for law-abiding citizens to exercise their right to self-defence”. However, many argue that is the whole point, given that Obama’s plans have been prompted by an array of violent gun attacks, perhaps the most shocking of which was the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre in 2012, in which 20 children under the age of seven and seven teachers were killed. Those events led Obama to declare that “we have been through this too many times…we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics”, a speech that many consider to have been one of his most powerful. However, three years on and with the US still averaging more than one mass shooting per day, last July Obama admitted that gun control laws are the “greatest frustration of his Presidency, testifying, “The United States is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient, common-sense gun safety laws, even in the face of repeated mass killings”.
Candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Donald Trump has vowed to challenge Obama’s plan, explaining, “There’s an assault on the Second Amendment [and democracy]…the system’s supposed to be you get the Democrats, you get the Republicans, and you make deals. He can’t do that…so he’s going to sign another Executive Order…I will veto”.
This pro-gun stance is seemingly inherent within the Republican party, and is echoed by other Republican presidential hopefuls. In October 2015 Jeb Bush controversially dismissed the Umpqua Community College shooting, stating that “stuff happens, there’s always a crisis”. Meanwhile, Ben Carson has revealed he would “never advocate anything to interfere with Second Amendment rights”and likewise, Ted Cruz has commented on the “unconstitutional” nature of Obama’s actions.
In contrast, Hilary Clinton, like the majority of Democrats, supports gun control, believing that local police should be able to track gun information, that lawsuits against gun manufacturers concerning gun violence should be legal, and that assault weapons should be kept off the streets. A statement that has been made in the wake of the state of Texas legalising the open carriage of assault weapons in public. Bernie Sanders has also spoken in favour of increased legislation, stating, “I think the vast majority of the American people…including gun owners…want sensible gun control legislation”.
However, in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting last month, which left fourteen dead, The Washington Post and ABC News conducted a poll and found that 53% of respondents opposed a ban on assault weapons. Equally, when asked which is the better reaction to terrorism, forty-seven per cent said encouraging more people to carry guns legally, while 42% preferred enacting stricter gun control laws. These results ultimately suggest that a slim majority favour the open American approach to firearms.
Even if, as is predicted by polls, the Democrats take office again, it is likely that Obama’s plans to expand background checks and ultimately restrict universal firearm ownership will be a focal point for Republican opposition and their presidential campaigns, whilst simultaneously further hindering the potential for cross-party alliances.