(Photo credit: Amy Rose/Fourth Estate)
President Obama released an executive action on gun control on Jan. 4, 2016. CNN then hosted a town hall at Mason on Jan. 7, 2016, as a way for the president to further explain his executive action and answer questions.
David Bernstein, Foundation Professor at Mason’s law school and author of “Lawless: The Obama Administration’s Unprecedented Assault on the Constitution and the Rule of Law,” explained that executive orders and actions do not create law, but are “basically telling executive branch officials how to interpret existing law.”
An executive order is an “official, legally binding mandate passed down from the president to federal agencies under the executive branch” and is recorded in the Federal Register, according to PBS.
Executive actions, however, are simply any action taken by the president, usually informal, nonbinding proposals.
President Obama’s executive action on gun control includes implementing background checks, tracking illegal firearm trafficking and further researching smart gun technology, according to the White House. Additionally, the executive action tries to prevent those with mental illnesses from passing background checks and acquiring guns by working in conjunction with the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the White House.
According to Bernstein, the president’s executive action seems to maintain the status quo and is mainly trying to keep political momentum.
“There’s a lot of smoke and not that much fire here. … Some of the things he announced as if they were novel new things were already rules that were in progress,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein added that the present situation strikes him as one where the president has taken to heart the criticism that he has gone too far outside his legal authority; but there’s no controversy that the president has the authority to impose the executive action, Bernstein continued.
Richard Rubenstein, professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at Mason, agrees that the executive action will not change the status quo much.
“[The executive action] is perfectly legal,” but “it probably won’t do very much to eliminate gun violence in America,” Rubenstein said.
Devon Flynn, a government and international politics major and president of the College Republicans, is against Obama’s executive action primarily because he disproves any and all executive actions — no matter the president’s political party — because they bypass Congress.
Flynn explained that the Constitution is divided among three equal branches and believes that Obama “is using his power as if he’s above everybody and thinks he can create the law and say it’s legal and sign it into a law. This is not how the Constitution works. That’s not how America works.”
Joe Russell, a government and international politics major and co-president of GMU Democrats, considered the executive action a positive step in the right direction.
“These executive orders are … guaranteeing that the people who under existing federal law aren’t suppose[d] to have guns [do not] by tightening regulations and guaranteeing that there are fewer loopholes. I think that those are just commonsense changes that should be made in any political climate … [as they] can only save lives,” Russell said.
Flynn makes the point that Obama’s executive action would not have stopped any of the mass shootings that have taken place in recent years and added that the action was just a way for Obama to continue his gun grab.
Flynn also opposes spending money for research on smart gun technology, and he brought up the concern of a malfunction during a life-or-death situation.
“To me it’s a waste of money studying having a finger scanner, or other things, to use a gun,” Flynn said.
Despite Flynn’s outlook on Obama’s action, Russell thinks there are three aspects of the executive action that will have a significant effect.
“The first is guaranteeing that there is actually this loophole that’s developed in the past 10 years or so … this loophole’s emerged where people can buy heavy machinery … through using corporations or trusts as opposed to buying it as an individual, and doing that means you can circumvent the background check process,” Russell said.
Russell said the second aspect is the mental illness portion.
“It guarantees that the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System that the FBI runs is actually now collaborating with the Social Security Administration to make sure that [the records of] people with mental health illnesses who receive benefits from Social Security are now being incorporated into the background check system,” Russell said.
The third aspect of the executive action Russell mentioned is its move to update the entire backround check system.
“The last time it was fully revamped was 2006, and technology has come a long way since, and the background check system hasn’t been able to keep up with this,” Russell said.
Flynn said he also agrees with the portion pertaining to mental illness.
“Guns don’t shoot by themselves. People have to pull the trigger in order for the gun to go off,” Flynn said, “but we need to look at who is classified as mentally ill … the term is way too broad, and that’s why we need to come together to find the exact definition.”
Bernstein also conveyed concern over how the provision about mentally ill individuals will be implemented because of the ambiguity the definition.
“For example, if the Social Security Administration has determined that you are incompetent to handle your own finances, you are presumptively incompetent to therefore have a gun. This is a very controversial provision,” Bernstein said. “As I understand it, there are other ways of challenging this … so it’s not actually an order saying these people can’t ever own guns.”
Rubenstein believes that in order to eliminate gun violence, we first need to determine its underlying factors.
“In my opinion, we don’t know what to do about gun violence because we haven’t had the kind of national study and discussion of gun violence that we need to have to know if gun control is a good idea or not,” Rubenstein said.
Rubenstein further explained that many people are focusing on the politics of gun violence and not on the origins of the issue.
“People are just taking preconceived, predigested positions that guns are the problems, criminals are the problems, the government is the problem. … I think it’s going to turn out that the political posturing about for or against gun control is merely a way of avoiding what the underlying conditions are that are causing gun violence,” Rubenstein said. “For or against gun control is a useless posing.”