National Opinions

Clarence Page: Clinton signals willingness to regulate guns by executive action

Clarence Page
Clarence Page

By Clarence Page

Tribune Content Agency

After a gunman killed nine people at an Oregon community college last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed a new attitude on gun control. She sounds a lot like President Barack Obama's new attitude on immigration: If Congress doesn't act, she says, she will.

"This epidemic of gun violence knows no boundaries," the Democratic presidential candidate said, "knows no limits of any kind."

Her voice seemed to choke back tears as she introduced the mother of a six-year-old boy killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting three years ago.

With that she showed both the urgency and the futility of today's national gun debate. If the slaughter of 20 schoolchildren and six adults by one deranged gunman failed to move this Congress to pass such common-sense gun safety measures as universal background checks, can anything?

Since Newtown, today's Congress has only become more conservative as Republicans and, it often seems, the National Rifle Association have gained control of both houses.

With that in mind, Clinton made it apparent through her top aides that if Congress doesn't act, she's willing to take the executive action route that President Obama has taken with immigration and other issues. If Republicans want to challenge her in court, she reasons, let 'em.

Her position not only puts her out in front of an issue with high appeal for Democratic and moderate swing voters; it also puts her to the left of someone who usually is on her left: Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-identified "democratic socialist" from Vermont.

Coming from a liberal but rural state where hunting is very popular, Sanders has opposed many of the gun restrictions that Clinton and other Democrats tend to support. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, another Clinton challenger, has an even longer list of gun safety proposals than she does.

But as frontrunner in polls, it is Clinton's agenda that is grabbing so much attention that some supporters are asking Obama to act on it now without waiting for the next president.

Besides expanding the federal background check system, Clinton would crack down on gun sales that take place at gun shows and through the Internet, which allow buyers to dodge background checks.

She would also close the "Charleston loophole" that allows gun sales to go through if a background check is not completed within three days. It received its nickname after it allowed the mass killer behind this year's massacre in a Charleston, S.C., church to obtain his weapon.

Clinton would also try to repeal the gun industry's congressionally mandated immunity from tort law, an exquisite example of the NRA's clout. She also seeks more funding to inspect gun dealers. She wants a federal law barring domestic abusers and stalkers from firearms purchases, and she would revive the so-called "assault weapons" ban on military-style semi-automatic rifles.

Of course, critics of her proposal will argue that none of them would have stopped the young man who perpetrated the Oregon killings. Neither he nor his relatives, who authorities say purchased the killer's guns, have criminal or mental health records that would have blocked the purchases.

But as a sensible reform, background checks are the least intrusive, considering the potential benefits -- including prevention of suicides, which have outnumbered homicides by almost two-to-one among deaths by gun violence.

Still, Democrats can expect a fight, no matter what they propose. After more than a dozen mass shootings since his election, President Obama sounded both outraged and weary a day after the Oregon shootings. To those who lament how "routine" mass shootings have become, he said, "What's become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of commonsense gun legislation."

Even if he can't get legislation passed as his final months in office approach, he at least is going to talk relentlessly about the issue and push for "commonsense" laws, he said, such as expanded background checks — which polls show are supported by most gun owners, although not by the NRA.

Executive action to work around congressional opposition is a far-from-ideal way to govern. But it unfortunately has become Washington's way of doing business as a GOP majority is willing to shut down the government to prevent a liberal president from getting his way — or, someday, hers.

Reach Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

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