Will Obama's Plan Stop Gun Trafficking?

by | January 5, 2016

By John Fritze

Maryland has some of the toughest restrictions on gun sales in the nation, but gun control advocates said Monday they hope President Barack Obama's executive actions on the issue address an outstanding concern: weapons trafficked to Baltimore from other states.

Frustrated by the lack of progress in Congress after a string of mass shootings during his presidency, Obama will unveil on Tuesday what White House officials called "common sense" proposals to stem the violence -- a unilateral move that has provoked condemnation from congressional Republicans.

"This is not going to solve every violent crime in this country," Obama said Monday in the Oval Office. "It will potentially save lives and spare families the pain and the extraordinary loss that they've suffered as a consequence of a firearm getting in the hands of the wrong people."

At the center of the effort is a proposal to expand background checks on gun sales at shows and online. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, administration officials said, will issue new guidance intended to narrow the circumstances under which a seller might claim he or she is merely a collector, and therefore not subject to the background check rules.

Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to administer background checks, but the definition of "dealer" is vague and allows some to sell firearms in less regulated settings.

But the proposal -- billed as guidance to "clarify" current rules -- falls far short of the tougher background check provisions Obama pushed Congress to approve in 2013. White House officials declined to predict how many more sellers would be required to register under the new effort, or whether the provisions would have prevented any of the nation's recent high-profile shootings.

Maryland is one of 18 states that mandates background checks for handgun sales at gun shows, though gun-control advocates point out that guns purchased in neighboring states such as Virginia are not subject to that rule. Clamping down on enforcement of the current federal law might have an impact on people buying guns in other states and bringing them into Maryland, the advocates said.

About 43 percent of guns used in crimes in 2014 in Maryland were originally purchased in other states, according to a recent ATF study. A large share came from states with less stringent gun laws.

"We need these laws to be solid around the country," said Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence and a longtime advocate on the issue. "This may not affect us directly, but it will affect us because people go outside of the state to purchase guns."

A spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association said the group wanted to study specifics of Obama's proposal before commenting. In the past, gun rights groups have held up the high crime rate in Baltimore as an example of how strict gun laws don't always lead to low crime.

Baltimore just concluded a particularly violent year, the deadliest ever on a per-capita basis. The tally of 344 homicides in 2014 was second only to the record 353 in 1993, when Baltimore had about 100,000 more residents. Nearly 90 percent of the year's homicides were the result of shootings.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake applauded the measures late Monday.

"Some of our cities, including Baltimore, have seen a recent spike in homicides, and we know that the proliferation of guns on our streets and in the hands of people who should not have them has been a significant factor in this," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement in her capacity as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Republicans on Capitol Hill vowed to fight the administration's effort. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the president, at a minimum, was "subverting the legislative branch" and potentially overturning its will.

"We all are pained by the recent atrocities in our country, but no change the president is reportedly considering would have prevented them," Ryan said in a statement, referring to mass shootings around the country. "We have seen consistently that an underlying cause of these attacks has been mental illness, and we should look at ways to address this problem."

In addition to the gun show issue, Obama is expected to discuss a series of other proposals Tuesday -- some new, and some long in the making.

The FBI will hire more than 230 examiners and other staff to process background checks, the White House said. And the administration will request that Congress fund 200 new ATF agents to help enforce its new guidance.

The administration said a years-long effort to limit the ability of buyers to purchase a gun through a trust or corporation is being finalized. The number of applications for that kind of arrangement has increased from fewer than 900 in 2000 to more than 90,000 in 2014, the administration said. Officials also noted the near completion of a proposed rule that has been in the works to require gun dealers to notify police if their shipments are lost or stolen.

The administration also is making an effort to improve the background check system. For instance, it plans to clear legal hurdles that states have faced in identifying the mentally ill. The Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration plans to propose a rule that would enable the agency to help identify beneficiaries who are prohibited from buying a gun for health reasons, the White House said.

Obama and other Democrats largely avoided the issue of gun control during the president's first term, but they have become more vocal -- and more visibly frustrated -- following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Even with executive actions, though, the president's proposals could be stymied. Obama is already familiar with the limits of what is possible without Congress' consent.

An immigration initiative the president pursued unilaterally in 2014 to defer deportation for millions of people in the country illegally has been tied up in court for nearly a year, and it's not clear that the proposal will move forward before a new president is inaugurated in 2017.

Obama, in a tacit acknowledgment of the potential for a legal challenge to his gun proposal, said Monday that the measures are "entirely consistent with the Second Amendment." He also nodded to "a strong tradition of gun ownership in this country" for hunting and self protection.

Joseph Vince, director of criminal justice programs at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, said that booths at gun shows often carry signs that advertise no background checks. The concern many have, he said, is about where some of those guns wind up.

"The idea here is to keep guns away from the people who shouldn't have them," said Vince, a former ATF agent, "not keep guns away from law-abiding citizens."

(c)2016 The Baltimore Sun