Published May 28, 2011
The Obama administration, after keeping gun control on the back burner for over two years, is prompting concern among gun rights groups that it's slowly starting to squeeze the trigger on tighter regulation.
In the wake of the January shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, President Obama remained mostly quiet on the firearms front as lawmakers clamored for new restrictions. But the president has since made a public call for tougher background checks. The Justice Department launched a series of meetings with officials and advocates to examine gun control policy. And while gun-control bills in Congress have languished, the administration has started to chip around the edges with its own proposals.
"They're doing a pretty good job ... as Obama has said, 'under the radar.' There's a lot going on under that radar," Gun Owners of America Director Larry Pratt said, referring to a remark Obama reportedly made in a private meeting with gun control advocates. "They've shown us how much they are prepared to do through regulation."
Pratt pointed to two proposals in particular. Under one proposed rule from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, dealers in four Southwestern states would be required to report multiple sales to the same person of certain kinds of rifles. The proposed requirement -- which would apply to dealers in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas -- is open for comment until the end of May. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence claims the change would help the ATF "crack down" on Mexico's gunrunners.
In addition, ATF released a study in January that looked at criteria for restricting the importation of certain shotguns. The authors were working off a 1968 law that restricts gun imports but exempts firearms used for "sporting purposes." The report, then, tried to define which features on shotguns are not suitable for "sporting purposes" and therefore not importable -- among the features they flagged are folding stocks, magazines over five rounds and "light enhancing devices."
The National Rifle Association has come out strong against this study.
Pratt said the shotgun restrictions, if approved, could lead to broader restrictions on other imported long guns -- at a time when the administration is trying to reduce federal regulations. Pratt also cited a decision last year to block the sale of U.S.-made antique rifles by the South Korean government to gun collectors in America. The State Department said at the time it was concerned the guns could fall into the wrong hands.
These smaller-scale proposals come in lieu of sweeping restrictions like the assault-weapons ban Obama supported as a candidate but has not pursued as president. Another proposal on the table calls for banning high-capacity magazines, but it has not advanced in Congress.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., sponsor of that bill, has had trouble moving forward on the proposal in a GOP-dominated House and winning an endorsement from Obama -- despite having 107 co-sponsors.
"That's just something we haven't heard the president say anything about," McCarthy spokesman Shams Tarek told FoxNews.com.
Tarek stressed that the magazine ban wouldn't exactly be treading new ground -- it would reinstate an expired ban. "There's a precedent there," he said. But Tarek said the Obama administration is "very, very much in listening mode," not revealing one way or the other which way it's leaning on gun control.
The most detailed statement to come out of the administration so far was the president's March op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star, in which he pushed for better background checks. Obama stressed his belief in the "individual right to bear arms," but said "there's more we can do to prevent gun violence."
Based on the column, Tarek suggested the administration was with McCarthy and her allies when it comes to a new push to strengthen background checks. A bill she introduced earlier this month would impose stricter penalties on states that fail to enter the names of people prohibited from buying guns into a national database. And it would require background checks for all gun sales, including at gun shows.
The move was hailed by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which claimed it would fix "glaring gaps" in the background check system.
But gun-rights groups are urging Washington against going down this road. National statistics show gun sales are going up while violent crime is edging down slightly. Though gun-related deaths and injuries still number in the tens of thousands every year, the groups say enforcement is the key.
"The American public does not support gun control. ... What the American public wants is for criminals to be punished for their mistakes," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.
The NRA and other groups have also harshly criticized the administration for its own gun-control problem -- a Justice Department project by which hundreds of guns were allowed to "walk" across the border and into the hands of Mexican cartels.