Locals weigh in on Obama gun plan


Sitting happily in Morningstar Marketplace around noon Saturday with his NRA baseball cap firmly atop his head and a handgun on his hip, Larry Whitley pondered federal firearm laws.

Larry Whitley, of Leland, NC, talks about gun control at the Morning Star Marketplace Flea Market in Thomasville, Pa. on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016. Whitley visits family in the area every winter. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

He doesn’t like that President Barack Obama is proposing to change the rules unilaterally, via executive action, but his thoughts on gun laws are nuanced.

“I can understand the part about gun shows,” he said. “(Without background checks,) you don’t know who you’re selling to.”

While he doesn’t think that Obama should be “skirting Congress” in this way, he supports background checks in general. After all, if you have nothing to hide, he figures, it won’t hinder you.

“That’s just common sense,” said the North Carolinan, who comes up to York County every winter to visit family.

Obama says he’s looking for ways to keep guns out of the hands of "a dangerous few" without depending on Congress to pass a law on the fraught subject of gun control.

He says he'll meet with his attorney general, Loretta Lynch, on Monday to see what executive actions might be possible. Steps to strengthen background checks could come this week.

"The gun lobby is loud and well-organized in its defense of effortlessly available guns for anyone," Obama said in his weekly radio address. "The rest of us are going to have to be just as passionate and well-organized in our defense of our kids."

He said he gets so many letters from parents, teachers and children about the "epidemic of gun violence" that he can't "sit around and do nothing."

Obama recently directed staff at the White House to look into potential executive actions.

Currently, federally licensed firearms dealers are required to seek background checks on potential firearm purchasers. But advocacy groups say some of the people who sell firearms at gun shows are not federally licensed, increasing the chance of sales to customers prohibited by law from purchasing guns.

A source familiar with the administration's efforts said Obama is expected to take executive action next week that would set a "reasonable threshold" for when sellers have to seek a background check. That person didn't know whether it would be based on the number of guns sold or revenue generated through gun sales.

The source, a member of a gun control advocacy group, was not authorized to discuss details before the announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity. White House officials won't confirm the timing.

Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, said this likely will have little effect on gun sales in Pennsylvania — most transactions already require a background check. Virtually all handgun sales require a background check, as do sales by federally licensed dealers of “long guns,” a category that includes rifles, shotguns and “assault”-style weapons.

State law does not require background checks for all sales of long guns.

If what Obama does is anything along the lines of the bills Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has co-sponsored multiple times since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, it’ll more or less be “codifying Pennsylvania law into federal law,” Grove said.

“I think what we do is effective,” Grove said. The state representative, a gun owner himself who’s organized concealed-carry classes in the past, generally doesn’t support more and different gun laws — just better enforcement of the ones that already exist.

Executive power: In his efforts to work around a Congress that has often been politically gridlocked, Obama has made aggressive use of executive power, particularly on immigration. It has been an increasingly effective presidential tool. And while legal scholars are divided on whether Obama has accelerated or merely continued a drift of power toward the executive branch, there's little debate that he's paved a path for his successor.

Depending on who succeeds him, many Obama backers could rue the day they cheered his "pen-and-phone" campaign to get past Republican opposition in Congress. The unilateral steps he took to raise environmental standards and ease the threat of deportation for millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally may serve as precedent for moves they won't cheer.

The National Rifle Association opposes expanded background check systems. The organization's Institute for Legislative Action says studies have shown that people sent to state prison because of gun crimes typically get guns through theft, the black market or family and friends.

Also, many purchases by criminals are made from straw purchasers who pass background checks. "No amount of background checks can stop these criminals," says the group's website.

Obama has consistently expressed frustration after mass shootings, saying it shouldn't be so easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm to get his or her hands on a gun.

Going into his final year in office, Obama said his New Year's resolution is to move forward on unfinished business.

"That's especially true for one piece of unfinished business, that's our epidemic of gun violence," Obama said in his weekly address.

He said a bipartisan bill from three years ago requiring background checks for almost everyone had huge support, including among a majority of NRA households. But the Senate blocked it.

"Each time, we're told that common-sense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, so we shouldn't do anything," he said. "We know that we can't stop every act of violence. But what if we tried to stop even one?"

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com.