Other Voices

Obama launches teary, but ultimately mild, gun reform

President Barack Obama tearfully recalls the 20 first-graders killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School Tuesday while laying out steps to reduce gun violence.
President Barack Obama tearfully recalls the 20 first-graders killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School Tuesday while laying out steps to reduce gun violence. AP

The president of the United States wept on Tuesday. He wept when he came to the part of his speech about the first-graders.

“First-graders!” he said. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.”

Barack Obama, purportedly an emotionless man, has been passionate about gun control ever since the 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Conn., when 20 children and six adults were killed. Aides say his meetings with the Newtown parents included tears, too.

But Obama’s most powerful emotion on this issue isn’t empathy; as he said, it’s anger.

He’s angry that Republicans in Congress blocked new gun control laws even after Newtown.

He’s frustrated that he hasn’t been able to rally political pressure in favor of new regulations.

And he’s disappointed that his legacy may be nothing more than the mild executive actions he unveiled this week.

The measures Obama described on Tuesday are sensible but modest, limited by what his lawyers said he could do without the approval of Congress.

He expanded an existing regulation to ensure that more gun buyers receive background checks, and he created a new rule to require that dealers report when guns are lost or stolen.

Most significant, Obama broadened the definition of a gun dealer to make it clear that anyone who sells firearms “as a regular course of trade or business” must conduct background checks on customers.

Until now, people who sold guns over the Internet or informally at gun shows could claim that they were merely engaging in a hobby — which meant no checks were needed.

The “clarification” means federal law enforcement can more easily go after anyone who frequently sells guns to strangers for profit.

If the sellers fail to conduct background checks, they could be fined as much as $250,000.

Thousands of gray-area gun dealers are “on notice,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.

That’s not an infringement of their right to keep and bear arms; there’s no limit on how many guns they can own. Instead, it’s a regulation of their freedom to conduct business — the same regulation that gun stores already endure.

Of course, that didn’t stop the National Rifle Association and its allies from labeling Obama’s action dangerous.

“The proposed executive actions are ripe for abuse,” the NRA warned.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., issued a statement charging that Obama was targeting “the most law-abiding of citizens” instead of terrorists.

Despite that heated rhetoric, the real-world impact is likely to be small — mostly because the agency that’s charged with enforcing Obama’s orders doesn’t have the staff to do the job.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is the federal agency that oversees gun dealers, and Congress has deliberately starved its budget for years.

“ATF is massively underfunded and overworked,” said Matt Bennett of Third Way, a centrist group that has worked for gun control legislation. “As it is, they’re able to inspect federally licensed dealers, on average, only once every seven years.”

Obama on Tuesday promised to include funding for 200 more ATF agents in his budget this year — but that is a request that Congress is certain to reject.

“The odds that Congress will go along are roughly zero,” Bennett said. “There is, alas, no way around that.”

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. doyle.mcmanus@latimes