President Obama’s executive orders on firearms was met Tuesday by a muted response from many in the Twin Cities gun industry and advocates who said it differed little from existing law.
Without the backing of Congress, Obama is seeking to expand the number of sales subject to background checks in an effort to close what some have called a loophole where people can skirt the checks by buying from private sellers at shows, websites and flea markets. The action does not expand existing law but says those who claim to be hobbyists or collectors may actually be “engaged in the business” of selling guns and need to be federally licensed.
“What President Obama is calling for is already the law here,” said Andrew Rothman, president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance.
But Heather Martens, who leads the nonprofit gun safety group Protect Minnesota, said the action amounts to “improving the enforcement of the law.” She said she has seen people who call themselves private sellers frequently hawking firearms at gun shows and conventions.
“It’s just making sure everybody in the business of selling firearms actually follows the law,” Martens said.
The president unveiled his plan in an emotional address at the White House as members of Congress returned to Washington from a prolonged holiday recess.
Democrats among Minnesota’s congressional delegation echoed the president’s sentiment about the need for modest steps on strengthening background checks and the need to be vigilant in checking whether gun buyers have criminal records or records related to domestic violence. Republicans countered that improvements in mental health care, not gun control, are the solution to curbing violence.
Checks v. prosecutions
Rob Doar, political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee, called the president’s request for more resources for the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to streamline the background check process encouraging, but said enhanced prosecutions of gun crimes would be more effective. He cited federal data released in 2010 that showed of the 4,732 FBI background check denials investigated by the ATF that year, just 62 resulted in prosecutions and 13 in convictions.
Rothman also said that the transmission of Social Security records to FBI background checks to include people who are prohibited from possessing a firearm for mental health reasons was troublesome. He questioned whether the Social Security Administration possessed information about people who were adjudicated as mentally deficient and feared the measure would instead affect people who, for example, have someone handling their financial affairs. The White House has said the Social Security Administration will begin the rulemaking process to ensure “appropriate information” is reported in background checks. The rule-making is expected to include a provision for people to appeal the federal prohibition on possessing a firearm for mental health reasons.
Kevin Vick, who owns Crucible Arms in Lakeville, is among those skeptical that the government’s actions would reduce gun crimes. He said those who commit gun crimes or falsify background check applications are not prosecuted as aggressively as needed.
“People who are quote-unquote pro-gun … we are honestly as interested as anyone else in reducing an already plummeting rate of gun crime,” Vick said.
In Washington, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., lauded Obama’s order as progress, saying she has tried to get stricter gun control measures in place. “I want Congress to pass these bills, but in the meantime I support the common-sense administrative measures proposed today for stronger background checks,” she said.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., also applauded the move. “We have a serious gun violence problem in this country and I’m glad the president has taken action to address it,” he said in a statement.
Democratic Reps. Rick Nolan, Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison all praised the executive action.
“I support President Obama doing everything within the power of his office to keep the American people safe by keeping guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them,” McCollum said.
Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who represents Minnesota’s southern, more rural flank, was more circumspect, saying he was “carefully reviewing” the president’s executive orders and asking his constituents what they think.
Republican Reps. Tom Emmer and Erik Paulsen both said the president should work on improving the country’s mental health care, rather than executive orders restricting gun rights.
“While laying out his radical gun control ideology, the president himself admitted these steps would not have prevented any of the recent mass shootings,” Emmer said.
‘The fear is still there’
Earlier this week, Attorney General Loretta Lynch sent all 50 governors a letter asking that they continue to comply with the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
The NICS is a bank of data composed of criminal records, criminal dispositions, information on those prohibited from possessing firearms because of mental health reasons and records related to domestic violence that is shared among states and the federal government. Minnesota fully complies with this database, officials said Tuesday. State law requires information be shared with the NICS when a court commits a mentally ill person or determines a person is incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of mental illness, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
The Dec. 2 shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., that killed 14 people triggered another nationwide surge in gun buyers. The FBI processed a record 23 million background checks for firearms purchases in 2015, eclipsing the previous record of 21 million set in 2013. The 3.3 million background checks performed last month set an all-time single month record.
Gun sellers and law enforcement officials have said both personal safety and fears over increased gun control measures after high-profile shootings continue to fuel surges in applications. John Monson, who owns Bill’s Gun Shop & Range in Robbinsdale, said he has seen an increase in sales leading up to Tuesday’s announcement. He expects interest to remain high this election year.
“The fear is still there,” Monson said.