Obama’s move on guns may have only limited impact on violence

The president used his executive authority on Tuesday to clarify that anyone “in the business” of selling firearms must obtain a federal license and conduct background checks on prospective buyers.

A customer shops for a handgun at the K&W Gunworks store on January 5, 2016 as US president Barack Obama in Washington, DC announced his executive action on guns the same day. Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP
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WASHINGTON // President Barack Obama’s move to tighten controls on guns could curb the unregulated buying and selling of weapons over the internet and at gun shows, but the overall effect on violence in the US could prove to be modest.

“It’s not ever going to be difficult to get a firearm, just like it’s not ever going to be difficult to get illegal drugs,” said James Jacobs, a New York University law school professor. “What makes us think that we can now create a regime that will make guns hard to obtain for someone who wants to obtain them?”

The president used his executive authority on Tuesday to clarify that anyone “in the business” of selling firearms must obtain a federal license and conduct background checks on prospective buyers.

Currently, many private sellers online and at gun shows do not bother to get licenses, and weapons sales over the internet have become a booming business.

The White House and others cannot say how many transactions the step will block or how much bloodshed it may prevent.

But the new controls probably would not have prevented many of the grisly mass shootings around the country that have led to demands for tighter gun laws, and may affect only a tiny fraction of the nation’s 30,000 annual gun deaths.

Studies in the last decade have shown that criminals are more likely to get guns directly from friends or other social connections than at gun shows or flea markets.

The president’s action “has potential impact – the degree or the type, it’s hard to predict”, said University of Pennsylvania professor Susan Sorenson, who studies violence prevention. “And it’s really important to acknowledge that we can’t just have one change and expect that to change things wildly.”

The president also called for the hiring of more than 230 additional examiners and other staff to process the millions of background checks received annually.

Yet even with added manpower, there is no way to completely eliminate human error like the clerical mistake that allowed Dylann Roof, the young man charged in the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre, to buy a weapon even though he should have been disqualified because of a drug arrest.

Theresa O’Rourke of Downers Grove, Illinois, said she hopes Mr Obama’s action will deter illegal transactions that have deadly consequences. Her best friend, Jitka Vesel, 36, was killed in 2011 by a stalker who had illegally purchased a gun from a seller he met through Armslist.com, an online gun site. The seller was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to an illegal sale.

“People do it now because it’s easy,” Ms O’Rourke said. “But if we say upfront that if you break the law and you are going to go to prison, most people are going to take a step back and say, ‘You know what? It’s not worth it.”’

She and other gun control advocates said too many individuals make a living selling guns without obtaining the US$150 (Dh550) license and following requirements to conduct background checks, keep detailed sales records and face federal inspections.

Private sales – often carried out in person after internet advertisements connect sellers and buyers – can be exploited by convicted felons, domestic abusers and others who cannot pass a background check, critics say.

Private sales have increasingly gone online over the last decade, but precise data is hard to pin down. GunBroker.com, which calls itself the world’s largest online auction site for firearms and accessories, says it has grown every year since 1999. It now boasts 750,000 active listings on any given day. Armslist claims 7 million site visits per month.

Armslist owner Jonathan Gibbon called Mr Obama’s moves “well-meaning but ultimately ineffective”. He said many private sellers want to conduct background checks but are discouraged by a “costly and burdensome” system that requires them to go to licensed dealers and pay fees.

Everytown president John Feinblatt called the clarification a welcome if modest step.

“It puts them on notice and, if accompanied with aggressive enforcement, has the potential to narrow the number of unlicensed dealers who are selling without background checks,” he said. The Obama administration appeared determined to tamp down expectations, with Mr Obama saying he realises his actions will not stop all gun violence.

"Obviously the president is not able to take strong measures because that's going to require Congress to act," said Philip Cook, a Duke University professor. "But if he is able to disrupt a relative handful of sales and save a handful of lives, that may well be worthwhile."* Associated Press