Can the President Bypass Congress on Gun Control?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on December 15, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Gun control advocates have long sought to close the so-called gun show loophole that allows people to buy firearms without submitting to the same background check requirements imposed on licensed dealers. But congressional attempts at passing such legislation have thus far been fruitless.

So President Barack Obama may decide to take matters into his own hands. The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the Obama administration is considering the use of an executive order to expand background checks on gun sales. How do these orders work? And can the president really pass gun control laws without congressional approval?

Going Solo

It's no secret that Obama wants stricter gun controls. The president pushed for expanded background checks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting three years ago, but that legislation died in the Senate. He tried again after the Umpqua Community College shooting in October, but measures for more background checks and bans on sales to people on the government's anti-terrorist "no fly" list both failed.

Now the White House is looking to circumvent the legislature altogether. According to reports, officials have been working on an executive order that would use existing laws to require all (or nearly all) gun purchases to be cleared by the same background check system.

While the order has not been finalized, Obama is said to be looking at expanding license requirements by defining what it means to be "in the business" of dealing guns -- those deemed in the business are required to perform background checks while those that aren't don't. If occasional sellers like those at gun shows are required to obtain a license to sell firearms it would also expand background check requirements.

Chief Executive Order

Leaving to one side the question of whether tougher gun control laws will lead to fewer shooting deaths (even though evidence suggests that they do), the issue becomes whether this exercise of presidential power is even legal. An executive order is a policy statement that interprets and directs the implementation of existing federal statutes, congressional provisions, or treaties. Executive orders aren't so much new laws as they are changing or clarifying the policy on existing laws, and generally aren't used without some congressional approval. And executive orders are still subject to judicial review for constitutionality.

Hence Obama's delay in formally announcing or implementing an executive order on gun control. Despite his desire to make it more difficult for violent people to purchase firearms, drafting an order that will accomplish that and appease enough congresspeople to be successfully implemented may prove as politically intractable as the legislature.

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