Will President Obama's Gun Control Measures Work?

Law school professor says problem is too complicated for single executive order.

(Photo / thenationsgunshow.com)
Handguns on display at a recent gun show. (Photo / thenationsgunshow.com)
January 13, 2016

By Ruth Steinhardt

President Barack Obama has made it clear that preventing gun violence will be a priority of his final year in office. In an emotional speech delivered at the White House Jan. 5, he proposed a number of measures intended to close gun-buying loopholes and curb gun deaths. George Washington University Law School professor Robert J. Cottroll spoke to George Washington Today about the future of those proposals.

Q: In your opinion, will the proposed measures reduce the kinds of violence President Obama has said he wants to address, specifically mass shootings?

A: In my opinion, the proposed measures are unlikely to have significant impact on the problem of gun violence in the United States. Mass shootings like the 2012 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., are very hard to predict and not particularly affected by gun control measures. There have been mass shootings in nations with very strict gun control laws: Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom and France, among others. All of these nations have had far stricter gun control laws than would be politically acceptable in the United States.

The real gun violence issue is not the mass shootings, although they naturally horrify us and get our attention, but the day-to-day carnage that occurs in inner-city neighborhoods.  Society has failed to protect the good people in these neighborhoods from the predators living among them. We have astronomically high rates of homicides in these communities. That situation could be somewhat alleviated through better police protection and enhanced penalties for criminal misuse of firearms, particularly for repeat offenders.

Robert J. Cottrol (Photo / GW Law) 

Q: Could the proposals face legal opposition?

A: We will have to see how these proposals are translated into regulations by an administrative agency, presumably the Department of the Treasury. [A legal challenge could] involve the procedures used by the department to promulgate the new rules [or] the opportunity that the public has had to see and comment on the new regulations.

Q: Practically, what will the differences be between this measure as an executive order and a law passed by Congress?

A: Congress would have broader authority to make new law in this area. Right now, firearms regulation has to be done within the framework of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and its various amendments. If there were a desire for a significant alteration of the direction of federal firearms law, that would requite new legislation by Congress. Any legislation in that area could of course be subject to challenge in court. Among the areas for potential review by the courts would be the question of whether or not new legislation might be considered a violation of the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right of citizens to keep and bear arms.