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Will Obama’s action on guns help prevent deaths?

January 5, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
President Barack Obama will take questions at a televised town hall meeting on gun violence tonight. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s look at both the symbol and substance of what the president announced today and what its impact is likely to be.

John Feinblatt is the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which was created after the Newtown shootings and supported in part by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And David Kopel, he is research director at The Independence Institute. It’s a libertarian think tank. And he’s well — also an adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver.

And we welcome both of you.

John Feinblatt, is the president on the right track with these moves that he says are going to reduce the number of gun deaths?

JOHN FEINBLATT, Everytown for Gun Safety: Yes, I think what the president did today was pretty straightforward.

What he did was took some actions to enforce laws already on the books. One was, he clarified the law, that, if you’re in the business of selling guns, you need to get a license and do a background check.

And the second is, he said that he was going to devote the resources to enforce it. And I think that, when you combine clarifying the law with additional enforcement resources, what you’re going to do is interrupt some commercial sellers who are actually taking advantage of loopholes in the laws, not getting a license, and selling without background checks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Kopel, do you — excuse me for interrupting.

David Kopel, do you agree the president is generally on the right track with this?

DAVID KOPEL, Independence Institute: Well, I agree with most of what Mr. Feinblatt just said, because the president didn’t do anything at all that changes the law.

He just very forcefully and passionately restated what has been the law since 1968, which is, if you are engaged in the business, as the statute says, of selling firearms, then you have to have a federal firearms license. And of course he’s correct that that mandate is the same whether you sell in your basement or at a gun store or on the Internet or at a gun show.

And it’s always been like that. So, he restated it. He didn’t change anything, but I think it’s fine to remind people who might not know about that requirement that it exists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Feinblatt, it’s really not that much of a change? It’s just a matter of enforcing what was already there?

JOHN FEINBLATT: Look, the law has been blurry. It’s always — the law has been, if you’re engaged in the business of selling guns, you need to get a license and do background checks.

But the problem was that there was never any meat on the bone. So, people didn’t know what engaged in the business actually meant. And so what the president did today, which was very significant, was, he actually indicated what would be the criteria to know whether you were engaged in business.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are some of those criteria?

JOHN FEINBLATT: So, did you buy a gun and recently resell it? And, so, clearly, you’re in it for commerce. It’s not part of your own collection? It is new in the box with price tags already on it?

Are you — do you have business cards printed that actually show that you’re repeatedly selling guns? Are you showing up at gun shows month after month? Things like that. They’re commonsense, but they are very important, because what they’re offering is guidance to both law enforcement and to people who are selling guns about who needs to get a license and who doesn’t.

And then by saying that he would put enforcement might behind it, what I think will happen is that you will see dealers becoming licensed, doing background checks, where, heretofore, they hadn’t.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David Kopel, just spelling out some of these specifics could lead to a reduction in gun deaths?

DAVID KOPEL: Well, it will lead to the public being better informed.

I read the guidance document that the ATF published today. And it was fine. It adhered very closely to the statutory definition enacted by Congress and then provided some examples. And part of what it did was based on court cases interpreting the statute.

So, that’s good. And I think it will lead to more people getting federal firearms licenses, which is necessary to be engaged in the business of selling guns, because what the president is doing is implicitly reversing a Clinton era policy, which was to revoke dealers’ licenses because, supposedly, they weren’t selling enough guns to count as being engaged in the business.

So, 200,000 people lost their firearms licenses under the Clinton administration program, so, hopefully, this is a step to restore those licenses that probably never should have been taken away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Kopel, what about some of the other things the president is talking about, spending more money on mental health, making mental health treatment more available, spending money to advance research to make guns safer in the hands of children? What about those things? Will those make a difference?

DAVID KOPEL: Oh, the mental health is really important, and we, as a country, tend to only focus on it when there’s these notorious crimes committed by a severely mentally ill person.

But just on a day-to-day basis, one out of five prisoners in state prisons for homicide is seriously mentally ill. And, of course, people with mental illness are victimized by violent crime at a much higher rate than the general population.

So, I applaud the president for putting resources towards that, and that’s something we ought to be working on constantly. And both sides of the gun debate ought to be able to come together to support helping mentally ill people, not stigmatizing them, not having punitive harsh laws against people, but just giving people treatment resources.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Feinblatt, given the fact that, I mean, just at least the two of you agree, coming from somewhat different places on this, how do you explain the very vocal opposition out there?


JOHN FEINBLATT: Well, it’s interesting, because it’s not just me and David. It’s actually 90 percent of Americans.

So, 90 percent of Americans believe in universal background checks. Gun owners believe in it. Even NRA members, 74 percent of NRA members do. And so this is what the American public actually wants. And the president is taking steps to do it.

You know, for years, we have heard these issues that, if the president acts, he’s going to take people’s guns away, he’s confiscating guns, it’s a slippery slope. And I think David and I agree that background checks can save lives. Americans believe in it.

And all the president is really doing today is enforcing the laws already on the books, which is what people who oppose any efforts at gun safety always say: Why don’t you just enforce the laws on the books?

So, it’s surprising to hear that today, when, in fact, what the president has done is exactly what people have called for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David Kopel, though, is there more the president — is there more — what more could — let me put it this way. What more could Congress do to make it harder for a gun to be in the hands of someone who is going to commit a terrible crime?

DAVID KOPEL: Well, I think as Mr. Feinblatt said, enforcing existing laws.

The — we have cases where people have been straw purchasers. That’s somebody where you’re a legal buyer, but you’re buying on behalf of someone else, so that they can avoid the background check and get the gun. And that’s a very common way that criminals get guns. And the background check system can’t stop that.

And the Obama administration’s prosecution of straw purchase cases has been very lax, especially compared to the previous administration.

JOHN FEINBLATT: So, the most important thing that you can do is pass universal background checks.

Eighteen states have passed universal background checks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which the U.S. doesn’t have. We don’t have that now.

JOHN FEINBLATT: Which the U.S. doesn’t have.

But we’re going — we’re moving state by state. And in the past year or two, you have seen Oregon, Colorado, Washington state, in two cases by the legislature, in one case by ballot. And if you look at the states that have passed universal background checks, 48 percent fewer homicides of cops, 48 percent fewer domestic homicides with guns, almost half the amount of trafficking.

Background checks work. And it’s important to know that that’s the step that we have to do. That’s the final step here. It’s the major step.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David Kopel, that’s not what the president has done so far. It’s not what he’s doing today. Would that make a huge difference in unnecessary gun deaths, universal background checks?

DAVID KOPEL: Well, we have one of these Bloomberg laws that was passed in Colorado. And I’m currently representing most of the state sheriffs in federal court in a lawsuit against it because it’s so badly structured.

It makes it very difficult for people to teach gun safety classes. For example, the Washington analogue, it’s illegal if you’re a gun safety instructor to hand a gun to a student empty, unloaded, and show the student how to handle it. Those are — these are ridiculous laws. They’re not universal background checks.

The Colorado law was so badly structured that it actually reduced the number of people getting background checks because it made them so difficult to obtain. So, whatever polls say about the theory of background checks, the practice and the laws pushed by Everytown has been terrible and highly destructive to the shooting sports and responsible gun use.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, so it sounds like, once one gets beyond what the president suggested today, you do see opposition?

JOHN FEINBLATT: You see it, but you see it — certainly, David objects it to, but every poll would show that 90 percent of Americans believe in universal background checks, whether you’re a gun owner, whether you’re not a gun owner, whether you live in a rural community or an urban community.

It’s what the American public wants. It’s what the people of Washington state voted for on their own at the ballot, and it’s what state legislatures are passing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and, today, we’re looking at what the president did through his executive actions.

JOHN FEINBLATT: That’s correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Feinblatt, David Kopel, we thank you both.

DAVID KOPEL: Thank you.