Twenty years after President Clinton tackled gun control by drastically reducing the number of licensed firearms dealers in the U.S., President Obama is preparing to tackle gun control by increasing the number of licensed gun dealers.
The different approaches of the two Democratic presidents is just one sign of how the politics of firearms has been transformed, and of Mr. Obamaâ€™s scaled-back ambitions despite a string of high-profile gun massacres during his time in office.
The action contemplated by the White House hinges on the legal definition of those who are â€œengaged in the businessâ€ of buying and selling guns for profit as their livelihood. Current law doesnâ€™t set a total number of annual gun sales to qualify as a business, but Democratic lawmakers and gun control advocacy groups are urging the White Houseto issue the rule as a way to close the â€œgun show loopholeâ€ that allows firearms to be sold without background checks at such expositions.
Federally licensed gun dealers are required to perform background checks on all gun sales, and only people who are deemed to be â€œengaged in the businessâ€ of dealing in guns are required to get ATF licenses.
Whether or not such action would have any appreciable effect on gun violence, itâ€™s essentially the reverse of Mr. Clintonâ€™s far more direct response to gun crime in the mid-1990s.
Laws passed under the Clinton administration, such as the Brady Law and the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994, changed the licensing procedures for federal firearms licensees by increasing fees and requiring gun dealers to submit photographs and fingerprints as part of their applications.
Primarily because of the increased regulation, the number of federal firearms licensees dropped from about 282,000 in 1993 to fewer than 104,000 by 1999.
â€œThe complaints from the gun-control groups [in the 1990s] were that there were way, way too many FFLs, and the government needed to crack down on and reduce the number of licensees,â€ said Lawrence Keane, general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industryâ€™s trade association. â€œNow all of a sudden, weâ€™re hearing the gun control groups say there arenâ€™t enough licenses, and everybody needs to have a license.â€
Gun homicides reached a peak in the U.S. in 1993 at seven homicides per 100,000 people and steadily declined after that to 3.8 homicides per 100,000 people in 2000. Researchers are still trying to reach a consensus on the causes for the drastic decline.
Since 2000, the gun homicide rate has remained relatively flat, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. From 2010 to 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, the number of gun homicides has hovered between 11,000 and 12,000 per year.
Despite the reduction, most Americans think gun violence is on the rise. Pewâ€™s survey in 2013 found that 56 percent of Americans believed the number of gun crimes had gone up compared with 20 years ago, while 12 percent said gun crimes had declined.
A Pew survey in July 2015 found that 85 percent of Americans (88 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans) favored expanded background checks for private gun sales and purchases at gun shows.
Blocked on the Hill
The Senate stopped an effort in 2013 to expand background checks on gun purchases. But Democratic lawmakers urged Mr. Obama last month to eliminate ambiguity in federal laws surrounding the term â€œengaged in the businessâ€ as it pertains to licensed firearms dealers.