On guns, push for executive action hits resistance

Story highlights

  • In the wake of high-profile shootings, the White House is considering what executive actions could help stem the gun violence
  • Without a clear legal path, it could be months before any new measures are revealed.

Washington (CNN)Facing dwindling odds of successful gun control legislation before President Barack Obama leaves office, the White House is exploring executive action that would expand background checks on gun sales, officials say, though legal and administrative complications have proven difficult to surmount.

On Friday the president met with Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman severely wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson in 2011 in which six people were killed. Her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, also participated, as did senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett.
The White House provided an update on the process, started after a shooting rampage in Oregon in October, of searching existing gun laws for openings where the administration could take unilateral action. But without a clear legal path, it could be months before any new measures are revealed.
    Meanwhile, the White House has yet to nominate a full-time director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- a move that avoids a contentious Senate confirmation battle, but leaves the agency tasked with regulating the sale of guns without a full-time leader.
    Obama declared after this week's shooting massacre in San Bernardino, California, that it was time to make it harder for would-be murderers to obtain weapons. It was the sixteenth time he's responded to a mass shooting while in office.
    "It's going to be important for all of us -- including our legislatures -- to see what we can do to make sure that when individuals decide that they want to do somebody harm, we're making it a little harder for them to do it," Obama said in the Oval Office Thursday. "Right now it's just too easy."
    That message was similar to his vow in the aftermath of October's shooting at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon. Obama said after that incident that shootings are "something we should politicize" in order to exact a change in gun policy.
    Since then, however, the issue has gone largely unmentioned, replaced by attention on the battle against ISIS and nearly three weeks spent abroad. Emerging details about the San Bernardino shooters' backgrounds -- including links to self-radicalization and ISIS ties -- could also wind up obscuring a renewed gun control push with new focus on tracking and monitoring potential terrorists.
    Those issues aside, the White House insists Obama remains focused on gun control.
    "This is a debate that the country is paying attention to right now and I don't think there's anybody that's been more prominent in that debate than President Obama," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.
    Behind the scenes, White House officials have struck upon the so-called "gun show loophole" as an area for potential executive action. The loophole allows certain gun sales -- including at gun shows and through private dealers -- to proceed without a background check.
    While licensed firearm dealers are required to conduct background checks before selling a gun, others not deemed "engaged in the business" of gun sales are permitted to proceed without a check. That includes collectors and some private sellers.
    Gun control advocates have pressed the White House to expand the federal government's interpretation of who is "in the business" of selling guns, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has vowed to take executive action on the matter should she reach the Oval Office.
    But navigating the process for closing the loophole unilaterally has proved difficult for the White House.
    "Taking Administrative action in this space is enormously complicated -- with complex (and intertwined) policy, legal, and operational considerations to take into account," one official said. "But that process is very much underway."
    It's not clear that closing the loophole would have prevented the San Bernardino shooter from obtaining the weapons used in this week's massacre, which he obtained legally. The White House insists action to tighten current laws is still worthwhile.
    "If we want to make it harder for individuals to carry out these kinds of acts in the future, it's time for Congress to pass laws that makes it harder for people who shouldn't have guns from getting them," Earnest said Thursday.
    Several hours later, Democrats in Congress did attempt to bring gun control legislation to a vote -- including measures that would expand background checks, prevent people on terror watch lists from buying guns, and strengthen mental health and substance abuse treatment.
    All were blocked by Republicans from moving forward.