What Obama’s Executive Order On Gun Control Really Means

Published January 5, 2016
Updated January 24, 2018
Published January 5, 2016
Updated January 24, 2018
Gun Control Executive Order

President Obama has taken matters into his own hands with an executive order that changes who can access guns. Image Source: Flickr

It would be an understatement to say gun control laws have caused a rift in American politics over the past few years. Political parties, TV stations and people on social media have already chosen their sides, and it appears as if coming to a compromise is all but impossible. There is, however, one area of gun safety legislation that almost everyone agrees on: laws need to be made to make it harder for criminals and the mentally unstable to obtain firearms.

President Barack Obama is bypassing Congress this week with an executive order to attempt just that. The move is obviously divisive—critics have so far ranged from claiming that Obama is damaging the second amendment (Donald Trump) to installing himself as a dictator (Chris Christie)—so let’s take a look at the actual letter of the law to see what it contains. Here are the facts behind Obama’s latest attempt to tackle gun violence:

Gun sellers must be federally licensed and conduct thorough background checks

Guns are not a mom and pop business, and haven’t been since the late 1800s. They can be bought from a brick and mortar store, gun shows and even online. The new executive order makes it clear: If you sell “firearms, you must get a license and conduct background checks.”

This seems like something you’d assume is already happening, but loopholes and ambiguous language currently make it far too easy for criminals to access weapons. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) will now require background checks for people trying to buy weapons through trusts, corporations or other legal entities, which has been a problem in the past. The FBI is also taking action by improving how background checks can be conducted. Background checks will soon be available 24/7, and local law enforcement will be notified when a person attempts to unlawfully purchase a firearm.

The ATF will actually work the way it is supposed to

Obama’s plan expands the federal budget to fund 200 new ATF agents. Size hasn’t been the only problem—stories of incompetence and false arrests have plagued the bureau—but it’s certainly been an issue. The ATF is also coming into the 21st century with an Internet Investigation Center created to track illegal firearms trafficking online.

In another measure aimed at forcing gun sellers to keep track of their products, the ATF is making it the legal responsibility of firearms dealers to notify law enforcement if guns they shipped are lost or stolen in transit.

People with mental health issues will be barred from access to weapons

Medical confidentiality is a sacred right in America. But while it protects people’s privacy, it also inhibits gun sellers from gathering relevant information on people attempting to buy a firearm. The Social Security Administration will start including accessible information on people who are not, and should not, be allowed to possess a firearm. In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services is doing away with the barriers individual states face when reporting relevant mental health information.

It will look at changing the very nature of how guns work

“Smart guns” that require the owner’s fingerprint or that necessitate wearing a specific watch to fire have been in the making for years now. Some of them have even made it into the mass market. None of them, however, have found widespread success.

The Departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security will be sponsoring research in technology that keeps guns out of the wrong hands as well as conducting research of their own.

It will take time to see whether or not these measures will change the escalating rate of gun deaths in America. Obama is taking a first step that, according to a Gallup poll, 9 out of 10 Americans have already voiced support for. Obama’s executive order seems like a radical move to some, but the core of it is aimed at achieving what most people have been asking for all along: keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

Nickolaus Hines
Nickolaus Hines is a freelance writer in New York City. He graduated from Auburn University, and his recent bylines can be found at Men's Journal, Inverse, and Grape Collective.