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To sidestep a gridlocked Congress, President Obama announced Tuesday that he will issue executive orders to require anyone “in the business of selling firearms” to be licensed and therefore required to conduct background checks.
As The New York Times has reported, the executive orders will also direct agencies to engage in more gun research, encourage more federal prosecution of domestic violence cases, request new funding for 200 law enforcement agents, and improve access to mental health care.
“This is not going to solve every violent crime in the country,” Obama said Monday. “It is not going to prevent every mass shooting. It will potentially save lives in this country and spare families the pain and extraordinary loss when they lose loved ones to gun violence.”
Although the proposals were more modest than the twenty-three measures Obama proposed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed twenty children and six adults in 2012, Republicans, including presidential frontrunner Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have vowed to rescind the measures.
Congress has not passed a major gun control law since 1994, when it approved an assault weapon ban, as part of a larger crime-related bill signed by then President Bill Clinton. The law expired in 2004 and was never renewed despite dogged attempts to overcome GOP opposition by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose husband had died in a mass shooting.
But while action at the federal level has stalled, states have been acting on their own to reduce gun violence. Lawmakers have passed 125 gun control laws in 41 states since 2012, according to an analysis by the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“While Congress has shamefully failed to act on widely supported firearms policies like universal background checks and prohibiting gun possession by those on the terror watch lists, we have seen encouraging lifesaving progress at the state level,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director at a Dec. 16 press conference at which the nonprofit center’s analysis of 2015 legislation was released.
Gun control proponents have scored victories in red states including Louisiana as well as blue bastions like California by pursuing public health strategies. State proponents maintain that gun deaths, like highway fatalities, can be reduced by adopting safety measures and keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
In 2015, Thomas noted, eight states passed laws to keep guns out of the hands of domestic violence abusers. Bills permitting guns in K-12 schools were defeated in fifteen states, and fourteen states said no to legislation to force colleges and universities to allow guns on campus.
Pro-gun advocates had some victories in the South, which leads the country in gun ownership. Arkansas passed a law to allow firearms in locked cars on the premises of K-12 schools, college campuses, public buildings, and public parking lots. The Georgia legislature prohibited school districts from regulating gun possession on school grounds.
Galvanized by Obama’s initiative, gun control advocates hope to continue to push for changes at the state level in 2016. They plan to lobby states to follow California’s lead and require individuals with licenses to carry concealed weapons to obtain written permission from school officials before carrying firearms or ammunition onto grounds of K-12 schools and college campuses.
State advocates are also determined to close the “private sale loophole,” which Obama and many gun control experts consider the most dangerous gap in the federal firearms law. An estimated 40 percent of all firearms transferred in the U.S. are completed by unlicensed individuals who are not required to conduct background checks. As a result, criminals and people with serious mental health problems can easily acquire guns.
To close the gap, eighteen states and the District of Columbia now require background check requirements for some private sales, reports the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Eight states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington) and the District of Columbia require universal background checks at the point of sale for all transfers of firearms, including purchases from unlicensed sellers.
Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey require all firearms purchasers to obtain a permit issued after a background check. Four more states—Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and North Carolina—require handgun purchasers to obtain permits after the background checks. Illinois requires background checks whenever a firearm is sold at a gun show.
Last year in Oregon, Thomas noted, lawmakers passed a bill to prohibit individuals from buying guns from unlicensed sellers online or in other private sales without a background check. But even in Oregon—one of just seven states where the governor is a Democrat and Democrats control both houses of the legislature—the bill had a rocky road to passage because lawmakers feared the wrath of the National Rifle Association. The bill sparked recall petitions and was approved by only four votes in Oregon’s lower chamber.
To avoid similar high-wire battles over expanded background checks, Nevada and Maine are considering ballot initiatives in 2016. Both campaigns were initiated after Republican governors vetoed background check bills passed by their state legislatures.
Gun control proponents are also hoping that public support will help turn the tide for passage as it did in Oregon. National polls show that about 85 percent of Americans support expanded background checks. However, ballot initiatives are a limited option because only half the states offer a citizen-initiated process.
Local tragedies like the death of Nicholas Naumkin, a twelve-year-old New Yorker who was fatally shot while playing with a friend who found his dad’s unlocked loaded handgun, spurred New York State Representative Amy Paulin, a Westchester County mother of three, to spearhead a measure that requires handgun owners to lock up their weapons and disable them with trigger locks when the weapons are not in use.
Last summer, New York became the fourteenth state to pass such legislation; other states may follow in 2016. States that require handguns to have safety features have 40 percent fewer suicides per capita than states without these laws, a 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health found.
Although the NRA has argued that gun safety measures violate the Second Amendment by making it more difficult to defend oneself against attacks in one’s home, the Ninth Circuit of Appeals rejected this argument in June when it rebuffed the NRA’s challenge to a San Francisco ordinance requiring safety devices on guns.
Ninety-three percent of Second Amendment challenges have failed in the courts since the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in the Heller case, which held for the first time that the Second Amendment guarantees a law abiding citizen the right to possess a firearm in the home for self-defense.
The Supreme Court cautioned, however, that the Second Amendment “did not confer a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatsoever purpose.” The court went on to list laws—such as those that prohibit firearm possession by the mentally ill, outlawing guns in sensitive places like schools, and imposing conditions on the commercial sale of firearms—that would be permissible.
In 2014 alone, guns caused the deaths of more than 33,000 Americans, including 460 child homicide victims under age fourteen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sharon Johnson is the senior correspondent for Women’s eNews, a digital news service in New York City.