Though much of the right has been unhappy with Vice President Biden’s task force on gun violence, an unscripted comment Biden made last week caused conservatives to ring the alarm even more aggressively.
Talking to reporters about possible policy changes, Biden said, “The president is going to act. There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken. We haven’t decided what that is yet, but we’re compiling it all … as well as legislative action, we believe, is required.”
The use of possible “executive orders” was not well received – the right, without having seen the still-unwritten orders, accused President Obama of taking dictatorial actions on guns without congressional approval. ABC’s Jonathan Karl raised the issue at this morning’s White House press conference, asking, “[G]iven how difficult it will be, some would say impossible, to get any gun control measure passed through this Congress, what are you willing or able to do using the powers of your presidency to act without Congress?”
The president said we can expect more information once the VP’s task force has crafted specific recommendations, but Obama added, “I’m confident that there are some steps that we can take that don’t require legislation and that are within my authority as president. And where you get a step that has the opportunity to reduce the possibility of gun violence, then I want to go ahead and take it.”
This, I suspect, will cause even more heart palpitations, so let’s quickly note two simple facts. One, there are plenty of legal steps a president can take – in this and other areas – without actions from Congress. It’s perfectly normal under existing law and not evidence of a dictatorship.
Two, there’s ample precedent for president using executive power to act on guns – including in Republican administrations.
The Bush Administration declared a permanent ban today on almost all foreign-made semiautomatic assault rifles. Imports of the weapons have been suspended since spring.
The permanent ban affects all but 7 of the 50 models included in the spring suspension. It does not affect the far larger number of virtually identical weapons manufactured domestically, nor does it affect foreign-made semiautomatic weapons already in the United States.
The fact that Bush/Quayle administration issued an executive order on guns, within its legal authority, did not mean the then-president had seized authoritarian power in a bloodless coup. The NRA didn’t like it, but Bush had the authority and he used it.
So can we stop pretending perfectly legal executive orders are evidence of creeping tyranny?