Washington – Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Chris Murphy and other gun control advocates have switched their focus from Congress to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to try to close what they call loopholes in the FBI background checks of gun buyers.
Unable to sway Congress to tighten the background-check process, the Connecticut senators, joined by 22 Democratic colleagues, have asked President Obama to do so, using his executive powers to clarify the term “engaged in business.”
Current federal law requires those who are “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms need to obtain a federal license — and conduct background checks. But the law exempts anyone “who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.”
That means sales at gun shows and those by individuals over the Internet do not require the seller to verify with the FBI that a prospective buyers isn’t a felon, mentally incapacitated or barred by federal law in any other way from owning a gun.
Gun control advocates are asking the White House to broaden that definition to cover anyone who sells guns “at high volume.” They did not say how many gun sales that would entail, leaving that up to the White House.
“Updating the definition of ‘engaged in the business” to provide more explicit guidance as to which gun sellers are required to obtain a federal firearms license would not impact a father giving a gun to his son, or an individual selling his gun on the internet,” the senators said. “But it will help ensure that individuals are not able to continue to exploit ambiguity in the current regulation and sell guns at a high volume without any oversight by (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and without conducting background checks.”
National Rifle Association spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said there’s no need to reinterpret the law.
“People who repeatedly sell large volumes of firearms for livelihood or profit are covered by the current law because they are already defined as ‘engaged in the business.’ Federal law is clear,” Mortensen said. “President Obama cannot willy-nilly change the law without Congress.”
She also said any change “could ensnare people not intended to be covered by the law,” such as a widow selling off her late husband’s gun collection.
The senators said clarifying language in an existing law “is not without precedent,’ because states have given this guidance to retailers so they can determine whether they have to collect sales tax.
“This change would be a positive step forward in achieving universal background checks, a policy change that roughly 90 percent of Americans support,” the senators wrote.
Since October’s mass shooting in Roseburg, Ore., Obama has been considering the use of executive power to broaden gun background checks.
The gun control group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Everytown for Gun Safety, is also pressing Obama to bypass Congress on the issue of background checks.
Everytown is also asking the president to use his authority to issue new regulations that would ensure federal law enforcement prosecutes felons who try to illegally obtain guns, help states enforce their own background check laws and bar convicted domestic abusers from possessing guns.
Legal scholars are divided on how much authority the White House has.
After the Newtown shootings, which killed 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school on Dec. 14, 2012, Obama announced 23 executive actions ranging from re-establishing federal research into the causes of gun violence to banning nearly all the re-imports of military surplus firearms to private entities.
Obama also pressed Congress to approve legislation requiring universal background checks on gun sales. But that effort failed.
In their letter to Obama, the Democratic senators said they would not give up on efforts to press for gun safety measures in a Congress that shows no willingness to change federal gun laws.
“We will continue to make every effort to build support for and demand a vote on legislation to improve background checks, close loopholes, and shut down the illegal pipeline of guns,” the letter said.
“We will not give up the fight to improve our nation’s gun laws to reflect the broad agreement of gun owners and non-gun owners who want Congress to act to halt gun violence,” the senators wrote.
Obama has made frequent use of his executive authority on immigration, normalization of relations with Cuba, fine-tuning the Affordable Care Act and other issues.
In a case that will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, Republican governors sued to block Obama’s immigration initiatives. The president, however, has been successful with his other attempts to exert his authority.
This post was updated at 3:45 p.m. with comment from the National Rifle Association.