WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
25 Sep 2013 | Commentary | News

What President Obama can do about Gun Violence

In response to yet another horrific shooting this week, President Obama has called on Congress to act to prevent gun violence. Congress should act, but there is more that President Obama can do without Congress. He should not wait to do so.

The President has the authority to prohibit companies from importing assault weapons that are not “for sporting purposes.” Imported guns are much cheaper than domestic models; some imported guns can be purchased for a third of the price of domestic equivalents. They are also more dangerous, as they can be easily converted into fully automatic weapons. Two previous presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, have aggressively used their authority to prohibit imported assault weapons. President George H.W.Bush declared a permanent ban in 1989, and President Bill Clinton strengthened the ban in 1998. But enforcement has become lax and gun importers have found it easy to take advantage of loopholes in the ban. For example, they have succeeded in having many assault rifles classified as for “sporting purposes,” which exempts them from the ban.

As a result, the U.S. market is flooded with imports, such as the WASR-10 semiautomatic rifle that is manufactured in Romania. Imported weapons have been used in mass shootings across the United States, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Carson City, Nevada, to St. Louis, Missouri. They are used by criminals in cities across the United States. Imported guns, including the WASR-10 and Draco AK-47-style pistol have also become increasingly favored by Mexican drug cartels. In Mexico, where drug-related violence continues to devastate communities, 70 percent of the guns recovered and submitted for tracing come from the United States.

President Obama can stop the importation of these dangerous weapons by ordering the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to issue a new ruling that would close the loopholes and fully enforce the ban.

The President cannot do everything by executive order. Reforms like universal background checks, a new ban on assault weapons, and a federal statute to make gun trafficking a federal crime would all require congressional action. After the tragedy at Newtown shook the nation, bipartisan bills on background checks and gun trafficking were introduced in both the House and Senate this spring but failed to pass, despite overwhelming popular support.

Unfortunately, mass shootings in the United States do not seem to be going away, and because of that fact, neither will efforts at gun law reform. The movement to prevent gun violence has gained new resolve and new energy. The politics around this issue are changing. Even as Congress defied public opinion on common-sense measures to reduce gun violence, legislatures in states like Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, New York, and Maryland have forged key reforms at the state level. Of course, there have been setbacks as well—some states have moved to weaken gun laws, and two state legislators in Colorado were recently recalled after supporting reforms. The NRA is still a powerful force; what’s different now is that advocates of sensible gun laws are fighting back and winning battles.

President Obama’s leadership on this issue is making a difference. He has called on Congress to act, and he has made important changes at the executive level. After the Newtown shooting, he announced 23 executive orders to prevent gun violence, including measures to strengthen the background checks system. After Congress’s failure to pass legislation, President Obama signed executive orders to restrict military surplus guns like the M-1 assault rifle and close a loophole in the background checks system. Congress must act, but until it does, the President should do everything in his power to prevent gun violence.

The tragedy at the Navy Yard underscores yet again that we all have to do everything we can to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands. Enforcing the import ban is one more thing that President Obama can do.