President Barack Obama’s executive orders this week on curbing gun violence were limited but sensible steps. They expand background checks on gun buyers nationally and should make the FBI’s background checks more effective.
In a central way, Obama’s proposal reflects the universal background check law that Washington voters already approved in 2014 by passing Initiative 594. More than 59 percent of state voters supported I-594’s closure of a loophole for online and gun-show sales.
In both instances, Obama and Washington voters were forcing action on a public safety issue that neither Congress nor the Legislature was willing to act on — whether under Republican or Democratic control.
Except that the president is taking unilateral action to bypass the Congress, the move to expand background checks to gun shows and online sales is not a radical step.
As expected, those opposed to firearm regulations have been quick to warn of government overreach. Those complaints may have to be sorted out by courts.
Promises by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to take “a deep look at the president’s proposals in the Senate Judiciary Committee — with an eye toward ensuring that the Second Amendment is preserved” — are appropriate. A balancing of rights is needed and a legislative review can be constructive.
There are good things in the president’s proposal that we hope can reduce killings and suicides, if they are implemented. His proposals to add $500 million in mental health funding and more funds to add 200 new federal ATF agents depend upon a willing Congress.
The president is also ordering the FBI to beef up staffing for units that carry out background checks on gun buyers.
In a related move, the administration is acting to close gaps in the reporting of names of individuals, whose mental health status forbids them to own guns, to the federal NICS background check system run by the FBI.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services is finalizing a rule that clarifies the ability of legal authorities such as police and government agencies to pass along health records on individuals who should not have firearms. These are individuals found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or who have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.
The Hill newspaper noted that only two-thirds of states have mandatory reporting laws that require sharing of these mental health findings with NICS. Privacy concerns are a factor in some cases.
The pending DHHS rule clarification says that only the individual’s name and agency making a determination about a person’s fitness can be passed along, but that details of a diagnosis or treatment records may not be shared with NICS. These limits should quiet privacy concerns.
Another promising order requires the Social Security Administration to adopt rules for giving NICS the names of Social Security beneficiaries deemed a danger to themselves or no longer able to manage their affairs.
Gov. Jay Inslee followed suit Wednesday with executive orders meant to treat gun violence as a public-health problem. Among his requests is that his budget office strengthen I-594 by analyzing how effective state agencies, the courts, local law enforcement and other agencies are in sharing information that could reduce gun related violence.
The governor also ordered the Department of Health and University of Washington to collaborate in collecting and analyzing state data on firearm deaths and injuries. He asked the attorney general to review how well law enforcement is holding people accountable for attempting illegally to buy firearms under state law.
Recommendations for state policy improvements are due in October.
How well Obama’s actions keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have them remains to be proved. The proposed requirements on gun sales might affect someone who sells only one gun, which Washington’s law already does; Obama’s plan retains some exemptions for collectors.
There are legitimate questions about how the orders can curb the kind of gun violence that has shocked and sickened our country. In several mass shootings the guns were procured legally.
But a breakdown in background checks allowed the slaying of nine African-American parishioners at a Charleston, South Carolina, church last year. The situation is less clear in other killings, including the murders of 14 and wounding of 22 more by jihadist sympathizers Dec. 2 in San Bernardino, California.
In the end, Obama has drawn a line — pretty much all he can do as a president in his final year with a Congress that so far has been unwilling to consider changes. He was right to take action.