Tag Archives: gun control

Obama, Gun Control, and the Limits to Executive Action

President Obama is expected to formally announce today that he will pursue executive action design to expand background checks on some guns purchases. Obama’s decision has been described by media outlets as a way of sidestepping a Congress that has opposed enacting more stringent gun control legislation. Predictably, the President’s decision to act “unilaterally” has provoked the ire of Republicans, particularly those running for president, who are unanimous in condemning Obama’s decision as an excessive exercise of presidential power. In a not uncharacteristic assessment, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie complained on Fox News Sunday that Obama “is a petulant child… because quite frankly, the American people have rejected his agenda by turning both the House and the Senate over to the Republicans, and going from 21 governors when he came into office, the 31 Republican governors now, now this president wants to act as if he is a king, as if he is a dictator.”

But the reality is that executive actions like these are an indication of presidential weakness – not dictatorial power. The fact is that one of the great frustrations of Obama’s presidency – a frustration he has expressed on more than one occasion – has been his inability to get Congress to pass more stringent gun control legislation. In response, Obama has decided to move ahead on his own, in this instance by taking executive action to broaden the definition of what it means to be a gun seller. Under existing law, those purchasing guns from licensed gun dealers must undergo a background check. Those acquiring guns privately, in contrast, do not. By broadening the definition of who is a “gun dealer”, then, Obama’s executive action will in theory expand the number of background checks.

However, while it is true that Obama is, in effect, “making law” unilaterally, the substantive impact of his actions on gun violence is likely to be small, something he concedes. Indeed, in the run up to his announcement, gun sales have soared to levels not seen in two decades. The broader point, however, is that taking executive action, as opposed to legislating, is not a very effective way to make substantive, lasting policy change.  This is a point that political pundits, and even some political scientists, frequently overlook. There are several reasons for this. To begin, executive actions have much more limited scope than legislation – presidents can’t use them to overturn existing law. Nor can they be used on actions that require spending money without appropriations by Congress. In the case of background checks, Obama can order executive agencies to redouble their efforts to expand background checks, but he can’t unilaterally appropriate more money to implement his order.

The bigger problem when it when it comes to making law via executive action, however, is that the outcome is often short-lived, a point Donald Trump drove home in his interview with John Dickerson on Face the Nation on Sunday. When asked about Obama’s proposed action, Trump replied, “Well, I will say this. There’s lot of precedent, based on what he’s doing. Now, some have been — his executive order on the border, amazingly, the courts actually took that back a step and did something that was very surprising, which is, they did the right thing, so that maybe that one — but I would be rescinding a lot of executive orders that he’s done (italics added).” Trump’s threat to rescind Obama’s executive action is not to be taken lightly. In forthcoming research Jesse Gubb and I have conducted, we have found that of the roughly 300 most substantively important executive orders (EO’s) issued during the period 1947-2003, only about half are still on the books today. About 30% have been revoked by a subsequent president and another 2% overturned by congressional legislation. Because of the censored nature of the data, this probably understates how many EO’s have been actually revoked.

Beyond the lack of durability, however, executive orders illustrate a more general weakness of relying on what presidential scholar Richard Neustadt describes as a president’s “command” authority: it indicates a failure to bargain effectively with Congress. Trump drove this point home in his interview, noting that, “It’s supposed to be you get along with Congress, and you cajole, and you go back and forth, and everybody gets in a room and we end up with deals. And there’s compromise on lots of other things, but you end up with deals. Here’s a guy just goes — he’s given up on the process and he just goes and signs executive orders on everything.” Without trying to apportion blame, or even to accept Trump’s characterization that Obama has “given up” on the legislative process, the plain fact is that the President and Congress have not engaged successfully in the process of bargaining that is at the heart of the legislative process.

There is a more fundamental risk in Obama’s approach, however, beyond the failure to secure a desired legislative outcome. It is that efforts to achieve goals unilaterally are likely to stiffen congressional resistance to future presidential efforts to secure preferred legislation in other areas. In his famous study of the presidency, Neustadt noted that when it comes to evaluating presidents, “Strategically, the question is not how he masters Congress in a peculiar instance, but what he does to boost his mastery in an particular instance, looking forward tomorrow from today.”  We have seen other instances, most notably in his efforts to expand legal protection to children who came to this country illegally, where Obama’s efforts to act unilaterally have embroiled him in legal controversy and perhaps stiffen congressional opposition to his objectives.

For all these reasons, unilateral executive action is a poor substitute for bargaining with Congress and is best understood not as a sign of an imperial presidency who can “make law with the stroke of a pen” but rather as evidence of a president’s inability to bargain successfully with the legislative branch. Speaking more generally about presidents’ efforts to achieve goals via “command” authority, Neustadt concludes that, “Not only are these ‘last’ resorts less than conclusive, but they are also costly. Even though order is assured of execution, drastic action rarely comes at bargain rates. It can be costly to the aims in whose defense it is employed. It can be costly, also, to objectives far afield.” One can understand Obama’s frustration with Congress’ unwillingness to enact more stringent gun control via universal background checks. It may be that in issuing this latest executive action, Obama will make the issue of gun control more salient to the public, thus increasing pressure on Congress to act legislatively. But I suspect it is more likely that this latest action will harden opposition in Congress to further gun control legislation and that any real progress on this front will have to wait until a new President and Congress take office. If so, Obama will not be the first president to confront the difficulty of trying to make policy unilaterally in a constitutional system of shared powers. Unfortunately, he is also not likely to be the last.

Bernie Sanders: Live By the Gun, Die By the Gun?

In an email, former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas provides further context to Senator Bernie Sanders’ ambivalent record on gun control that I discussed in my last post and which has prompted the ire of some liberals in the Democratic Party. In 1990 Sanders challenged incumbent Republican Representative Peter Smith for Vermont’s lone congressional seat. This was a rematch of the 1988 contest in which Smith defeated Sanders, who was running as an independent, by about 4%. In 1990, however, Smith came out in favor of a ban on assault weapons, despite signing a pledge two years earlier to oppose gun control legislation. The NRA – no friend of Bernie’s – nonetheless spent $18,000 on advertising to defeat Smith. (This is what the video I showed in my last post is referring to when it cites the NRA contribution to defeat Sanders’ opponent.) Douglas recalls seeing signs while marching with Smith during parades that year saying, “Smith and Wesson YES, Smith in Congress NO!” While the assault ban wasn’t the only factor leading to Smith’s defeat, it likely left a lasting impression on Sanders who still remains somewhat defensive on this issue. Here is Bernie in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, defending his position on gun control by making specific references to his constituents’ views on gun ownership while explaining his vote not to hold gun manufacturers liable for gun-related deaths.

As I noted in my previous post, Sanders’ ambivalence is not sitting well with many liberals.  And while it certainly does not represent a shift in presidential politics (contrary to this Washington Post article), Hillary Clinton has been sure to include a reference to strengthening gun control laws in her stump speech, albeit without mentioning Bernie by name. Still, as I suggested in this US News post, Bernie has much bigger hurdles to clear than liberal opposition to his ambivalent stance regarding guns. This just-released WashingtonPost/ABC national survey of adults reaffirms what I wrote previously: Bernie’s support is lagging compared to Clinton’s among non-white Democrats, those without college degrees, and moderate and conservative members of his party. In past nominating contests these groups constituted about a third of the Democratic electorate. To be sure, a significant number of respondents – 45% – still have no opinion of Sanders, so there’s room for him to change those numbers in the days ahead, whereas opinions of Clinton are at this point unlikely to vary much. Nonetheless, much as it pains Sanders’ supporters to hear (which is why some of them have critiqued my previous posts on this topic!) Bernie is facing very long odds in his bid to secure the Democratic nomination.

I briefly discussed some of these issues in an interview with our local CBS television affiliate WCAX, which aired last night. In it I talked about some of the similarities and differences between the Dean and Sanders’ presidential campaigns.  One point I made, which didn’t make it into the clip, is that whereas Dean chose to rebrand himself as a liberal in 2004 – he actually had a relatively moderate record as Governor of Vermont – Sanders will have no such makeover problem since he’s campaigning on issues, such as reducing income inequality, that he’s advocated throughout his political career.  But authenticity will carry you only so far – Sanders needs to put together the campaign infrastructure to translate polling support into votes, particularly in the early campaign labor-intensive states of Iowa and New Hampshire.  CBS reporter Alex Apple, who did the interview with me, also talked with a former Dean staffer who recalled that the Dean campaign knocked on a lot doors in Iowa in 2004, but despite earlier polls indicating he was leading in the state, they had trouble turning out supporters on caucus day.  At this point I can’t tell what kind of ground game Bernie is putting into place in Iowa, but if I recall correctly one of the problems the Dean campaign struggled with is that Iowans were not all that impressed with the swarm of college students and other “Deaniacs” who came tromping through the cornfields to solicit their vote.

(I want to give special thanks to Alex and cameraman Tyson Foster who were kind enough to interview me on my back deck “office”. I can tell you that you won’t find any other political analyst handicapping the presidential contest on television while wearing shorts! It’s hard work being a political scientist, but someone has to do it.)

Bernie Sanders: Gun Nut – Or Politician?

Is Bernie Sanders a “gun nut”?

As the Vermont Senator’s political stock gains ground, buoyed by rising polling support in both Iowa and New Hampshire, journalists and pundits are beginning to look more closely at his record on the issues. For many progressives, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this element of Sanders’ candidacy is what they view as his lukewarm record on gun control. Echoing the sentiment of many progressive, the Slate’s Mark Steyn recently blasted Bernie on this issue in a blistering online critique: “[B]efore liberal Democrats flock to Sanders, they should remember that the Vermont senator stands firmly to Clinton’s right on one issue of overwhelming importance to the Democratic base: gun control. During his time in Congress, Sanders opposed several moderate gun control bills. He also supported the most odious NRA–backed law in recent memory—one that may block Sandy Hook families from winning a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the gun used to massacre their children.” As Steyn points out, in 1993 then-Representative Sanders opposed the Brady bill which proposed federal background checks for gun purchasers and restrictions on felons’ ability to own guns. Bernie’s voting record on gun control has also come under attack by groups backing Bernie’s Democratic rivals, including this attack ad aired by the pro-Martin O’Malley Super Pac Generation Forward:

But Bernie’s defenders point out that in recent years he has taken a stronger stance on gun control, including voting for expanded background checks on gun buyers and for a ban on assault weapon in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting.  The truth, however, as this Politifact story makes clear, is that while Bernie may not be the NRA’s poster child for the Second Amendment rights, neither has he been in the vanguard of gun control.  And while progressives find this troubling, conservative pundits – while no fan of Bernie’s – are finding progressive discomfiture on this issue more than a little amusing.

Taken as a whole, Bernie’s record on this issue is, as Steyn suggests, more conservative than that of his main Democratic presidential candidates with the exception of former Virginia Senator James Webb. Why would a candidate who is staking his campaign on progressive reform be so soft on gun control? The simplest explanation, as my Middlebury colleague Bert Johnson argues, is that, like it or not, Bernie is representing the preferences of a good number of his Vermont constituents. As Johnson notes in his comments to Politifact in its review of Bernie’s record on guns, “As a rural state with a large number of hunters and other gun owners, Vermont has been less liberal on guns than on most other issues, historically…[Sanders] seems to support more regulation of guns than the U.S. presently has, but he recognizes his constituents’ preferences so does not make gun control a priority.”

For the Prius-driving, urban-dwelling, tree-hugging, Chablis-drinking secular humanists among you, it might be difficult to fathom why a former Socialist mayor of Burlington representing possibly the most liberal state in nation could care very much about the political preferences of a group of knuckle-dragging goose-stepping paramilitary neo-Nazi gun owners. But the reality is that those who own guns in Vermont, while predominantly conservative in outlook, are nonetheless a somewhat diverse and, perhaps more importantly, rather substantial group of voters. In 2014, as part of her senior honors thesis, Middlebury College student Brianna Morse surveyed a representative sample of Vermonters to see how many owned guns, and why. Morse found that a substantial number – about 42% – of Vermont adults indicated they owned guns, a total consistent with what other sources have shown. Needless to say, this is a potentially sizable voting bloc.  It is true that gun ownership in Vermont is positively correlated with a more conservative political ideology; Morse found that for every unit increase on a seven-point ideological self-placement scale (from extremely liberal to extremely conservative), the odds of gun ownership increase by 1.2, controlling for education, ideology and income. (Ideology did not seem to affect the number or types of gun owned, however.) Gender also influenced gun ownership, with males five times more likely than females to own a gun, again controlling for socioeconomic status. Lower levels of education also had a statistically significant and positive relationship with gun ownership; Morse found that for every increase in the level of education the odds of a respondent owning a gun decrease slightly as well (with more educated individuals less likely to own multiple guns.) Neither income nor age seemed related to gun ownership, however.

When asked their motivations for owning a gun, respondents gave multiple reasons, but the most popular answer was for hunting. While liberal gun owners were most likely to cite target practice or skeet shooting as a reason for owning a gun, 42% of conservatives cited hunting most frequently, followed by 25% of conservatives citing their Second Amendment rights as the second most popular response. (Morse speculates that liberals are more squeamish than conservatives in shooting living creatures.) This compares to only 6% of liberals and 13% of moderates who listed the Second Amendment as a motivation for owning a gun. (Morse’s survey allowed respondents to cite more than one motivation for gun ownership.) In looking at these descriptive statistics, Morse suggests that, “Conservatives place a higher importance upon the acknowledgement of their rights as a citizen in the decision to own a gun than liberals or moderates… .” But she cautions that because of multiple responses combined with low response numbers for some categories, it is difficult to attribute a primary motivation for gun ownership among Vermonters with any degree of statistical confidence.

Viewed from the perspective of constituent preferences, Bernie’s ambivalence toward stricter gun control legislation is politically pragmatic, even if it seems to clash with his more progressive ideological outlook on other issues. But how will this play at the national level among Democrats? It is doubtful that Clinton or other Democrats are going to make this much of an issue, at least in the early going. The percentage of gun owners in Iowa, at about 42% of voting-age adults, rivals that of Vermont, and New Hampshire’s proportion, while lower at about 30%, is still substantial. Yes, these aren’t necessarily predominantly Democratic voters, but why take a chance on alienating a politically active group of voters? Nationally, support for more stringent gun control has been lukewarm at best, except for brief fluctuations in the aftermath of highly publicized shootings such as Newtown, and it ranks quite low among the issues that concern most Americans. If Bernie is going to lose this race for the Democratic nomination, it is highly doubtful that his stance on guns will be the issue that takes him down.  Most progressives, I suspect, will be willing to look past what they will likely view as an anomaly in Sanders’ record.

Bernie Sanders. He’s not a gun nut. He’s a politician.