White House officials are seeking a way to use executive authority to close the so-called gun show loophole that allows thousands of people to buy guns each year without a background check, but complicated legal issues have slowed the process.
Almost three years ago, President Barack Obama asked Congress to change the law to require background checks for weapons sold at gun shows, but a bill to do so died in the Senate – dashing administration hopes for legislative action to address the loophole.
Efforts to use Obama’s executive powers to address the issue took on added urgency in October, when a shooter at a community college in Oregon killed nine people, then shot himself.
Since then, White House officials have been trying to draft an executive order that would effectively reinterpret existing law to require all or most such sales to go through the background check system.
But despite Obama’s visible frustration with the lack of action on guns, figuring out a solution has proved complicated. Many had expected the White House to announce plans for an executive order in time for the anniversary on Dec. 14 of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut. That now seems less likely.
Requiring background checks for weapons sold at gun shows might not have had any effect on Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in which 14 people were killed. So far, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has determined that two of the weapons used in the assault were legally purchased at a gun shop in Corona, Calif.
But White House officials and their allies continue to see expanding the background check system as the most promising avenue to reduce at least some of the deaths caused by guns.
Federal law requires gun stores and other regular sellers to get federal licenses and conduct background checks. But the law offers an exemption to hobbyists, collectors and others who sell guns but are not formally considered to be gun dealers.
Thousands of guns are sold in those private sales every year, a volume Obama believes helps to fuel what he sees as an epidemic of shootings.
Officials have been scouring through state and local efforts looking for successful programs that have reduced gun violence and searching for multilayered ways to attack what they see as a scourge.
“That work includes looking at the gun show loophole,” said one White House official involved in the work. “But taking administrative action in this space is enormously complicated, with complex and intertwined policy, legal and operational considerations to take into account.”
“That process,” the official said, “is very much underway.”
In a somber statement in the Oval Office on Thursday, Obama called once again on lawmakers to make sweeping changes by changing the law.
“We all have a part to play,” Obama said, including “legislators” in the list of those who must work to make it more difficult for violent people to get access to weapons.
“Right now, it’s just too easy.”