- Ben Thesing
A Presidential Legacy: Obama’s Executive Action on Gun Reform
It is a debate held over meals, the Internet, TV, and nearly any social setting in the United States. It is an issue that claims lives, stirs passions, and stems from the Constitution: the topic, of course, is gun rights in the United States. President Obama has been very vocal on this issue as of late; he has written an op-ed in the New York Times defending his executive action on guns and conducted several interviews clarifying and garnering support for these actions. The President started off the New Year with an in-depth, yet straightforward plan “to reduce gun violence and make our communities safer.” The plan aims to bolster background checks, increase funding for gun law enforcement and a commitment to end gun trafficking, provide more consistent and effective mental health care across the nation, and to review increased smart gun technology. While the Republican Congress has decried this action, it brings up an important review of the constitutionality of executive action and the opportunity this specific action holds for America’s future and Obama’s growing legacy. The American people must recognize the importance of the president’s actions in saving lives and shaping a nation that will be, in turn, more responsible and cooperative on gun standards and safety.
For anyone doubting the constitutionality of the President’s action, an important distinction must be made between executive orders and executive actions. Under Article II of the Constitution, the President may enact executive orders in times of distress; these are legally binding actions that do not require Congressional approval. President Obama has used this authority 225 times since his 2009 election, and this has surely been controversial—especially regarding immigration. Yet, the distinction to make is that these new announcements on guns are not an executive order, but a more loosely defined term known as executive action. Executive actions are non-legally binding, and they are more easily described as policy preferences released by the President. Executive actions hold an important place in American politics today because they are a straightforward method for the President to reveal his interests and desires in a focused manner that can easily become legislation. An executive action does not overstep Congressional approval and get written into law immediately; the actions are merely policy suggestions Presidents release to build momentum behind specific issue areas.
An important point defining a theme for the Obama administration is their avoidance of charged language in their press release and a focus on facts. They began the release by addressing the “more than 100,000 people…killed as a result of gun violence” over the past decade and the various incidents that have resulted in death and senseless violence in America. Both the language and message of their policy prescriptions are comprehensible to the non-policy scholar reader, and include funding requirements and measures already addressing the administration’s goals. An example of this occurs under their fourth point: “The President has also directed the [Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security] to review the availability of smart gun technology on a regular basis.” Additionally, the administration thoroughly explained the reasoning behind their four suggestions in a nonpartisan manner. When describing their reasoning behind bolstering background checks, they articulate the weaknesses of the current system where gun sales online and at gun shows often occur without background checks and can place guns in the hands of irresponsible individuals.
The suggestions the President has made reveal his goal is not to eliminate gun ownership in America or to override the Second Amendment, but to transform America into the modern society it could be if many lives full of potential were not lost due to senseless violence and ignorance. The President’s recent actions have been a continuation of his desire to change a common notion about the U.S.: for a country that maintains an economic and cultural force, the U.S. is one of the most regressive, backward, and violence-ridden countries in the world. As the White House’s release begins, over 100,000 American citizens have lost their lives to gun violence over the past decade. The President makes it very clear in his NY Times op-ed that the gun issue in the U.S. is not a partisan issue – he emphasizes that “[w]e all have a responsibility.” The President takes clear shots at those purporting fear and neglecting implementation of common-sense gun reform. He calls out to “the vast majority of responsible gun owners,” those who “grieve with us after every mass shooting, who support common-sense gun safety and who feel that their views are not being properly represented,” to stand in solidarity and vote for politicians committed to fixing a broken system.
The beauty of President Obama’s executive action is that it enables any viewer or reader to connect with a person of power who is usually viewed as off limits. President Obama’s proposals on gun safety and recent interviews have enabled the American people to understand, on a deeper level, the beliefs and interests of a President who has demonstrated a deep care and concern for his nation. While these executive actions will likely be swept aside by Congress, they are a small demonstration of the efforts put forth by the Obama administration to connect with their constituency and influence progressive legislation and meaningful societal change. They will be permanently imprinted into Obama’s legacy: his efforts are set in stone, his desire to keep Congress moving is cemented, and his State of the Union speech made it clear his last year in office will be personal, aggressive, and focused on pushing toward a brighter future for generations young and old alike.
Lastly, the President’s actions demonstrate his ability to influence short-term electoral politics—a concept important in the current political mayhem in the run up to the 2016 Presidential primaries. His claim, “I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform,” has put important pressure on Senator Sanders and Republican candidates whose stances on gun reform do not measure up to the President’s expectations. In his final months in office, the President hopes to sketch a rough draft of gun reform, a tangible legislative torch that can be passed to the next Commander in Chief. He makes it clear he is still the figurehead for the Democratic party, and any candidate who follows that political philosophy should not only accept his proposition for gun-safety, but work to surpass proposed legislation in the future. President Obama has made it quite clear that an important part of what he has always wanted to represent is an inspiration. His goal has been to inspire every American to do the best they can for one another and for their nation. By opening up to the public, pressuring candidates, and pushing policy forward, the President is asking us all to think like a President, to take the time to support action beneficial for the nation as a whole, and to neglect figureheads who derive power from fear and thrive on the improper education and ignorance of others.