The Success of Obama’s Gun Plan Boils Down to Better Tech and More Data
President Obama’s executive actions on guns announced during a teary-eyed address at the White House today are far less radical than most gun control supporters would have hoped for. They’re also far less radical than gun rights advocates fear.
What they are is a workaround—one that seeks to use tech to ensure that the system as it exists today does a better job of preventing the wrong people from buying guns tomorrow.
As a result, what President Obama has announced is not the sweeping universal background check policy he pushed for back in 2013. It’s also not about “taking guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens,” as Jeb Bush put it in an op-ed. Instead, it’s a plan that aspires to limit the spread of gun violence by relying heavily on more sophisticated technology, better data, and regulations that keep pace with the Internet age.
During the time the gun debate has stayed locked in a stalemate in the United States, so much has changed in terms of technology’s ability to synthesize data to improve—or, in this case, save—people’s lives. Meanwhile, as regulations have stagnated, critics say online gun brokers are enabling sellers to circumvent the regulations their brick-and-mortar counterparts follow. Modernizing these systems may not end gun violence altogether (Obama’s plan also calls for a $500 million investment in mental health, among other things), but it could help.
The Virtual Loophole
For starters,the plan not only closes the so-called “gun show loophole.” It also closes the online “virtual loophole” by clarifying language in existing regulations about who is and isn’t required to obtain a license. The new language makes it clear that anyone “in the business of selling firearms” is required to have a license, regardless of where that business takes place. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it over the Internet or at a gun show,” President Obama said. “It’s not where you do it, but what you do.”
According to Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, unlicensed online sales are a rapidly growing sector of the gun industry. One study found that during a single month in 2013 on the website Armslist.com, nearly 16,000 guns were up for sale by unlicensed private sellers. A gun control advocacy group’s study of the same website, as noted in Obama’s address, found that one in thirty people who visited had felony or domestic abuse records.
“Like all other aspects of life, sales that used to happen offline are now happening online,” Gerney says, adding that clarifying the rules will put pressure on sites like Armslist and make it easier for law enforcement to bring charges against sellers who don’t comply. As part of this plan, the ATF has established an Internet Investigations Center to root out gun traffickers online.
Ensuring more background checks take place online will also lead to more data. Because data on gun sales isn’t publicly available, background check data released by the FBI is often the best indicator of gun circulation in America. By requiring more sellers to conduct those background checks, researchers stand to gain a clearer picture of the country’s gun industry.
Better Background Checks
Obama’s plan also includes steps to ensure these background checks happen faster. To accomplish that, the FBI will hire an additional 230 examiners and work with the US Digital Service to modernize the background check system. The goal would be to ensure all checks are completed within three days or less. That timing is critical because if a background check takes longer than three days, a seller is legally permitted to sell the gun anyway, which is how Dylann Roof, who had a drug-related arrest record, was able to obtain the gun authorities say he used to kill nine people in a Charleston church last year.
“These steps will lead to a smoother process for law abiding gun owners, a smoother process for responsible gun dealers, and a stronger process for protecting the public from dangerous people,” Obama said.
The National Rifle Association, unsurprisingly, disagrees. “The proposed executive actions are ripe for abuse by the Obama Administration, which has made no secret of its contempt for the Second Amendment,” the group said in a statement. The National Shooting Sports Foundation was more temperate in its response and actually supported some of the measures.
Other pieces of Obama’s plan encourage more data sharing between manufacturers, dealers, and local and federal law enforcement. The ATF, for instance, will now require dealers to notify law enforcement when guns are lost or stolen in transit, an issue Gerney says is not altogether uncommon and contributes significantly to the firearms black market.
Technology can also help track those missing firearms. As part of the plan, the defense, justice, and homeland security departments will work together and with the private sector to advance research on so-called smart guns technology. These tools use biometric technology and radio frequency identification, among other methods, to prevent guns from being used by someone other than their owners. This technology could not only help track guns but could also prevent stolen guns from being used, which may cut down on the roughly 500 accidental gun deaths that take place in the US every year.
“If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you have the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same for our guns?” Obama said.
Smart gun technology has been all but impossible to bring to market in the US in the face of opposition from the gun lobby, which fears that mandating smart technology could lead to a ban on guns that don’t contain it. But when the largest purchaser of firearms in the country—the US government—commits to researching and investing in this technology, the path to commercialization is much clearer, Gerney says. And while some gun control advocates dismiss smart guns as a band-aid on the gaping wound that is gun violence in America, he says it’s important to remember what even incremental changes can do.
“When you’re talking about a problem that kills 33,000 Americans a year,” he says, “even a relatively modest impact could mean saving tens, hundreds of lives.”
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