On Monday, President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions that will close loopholes in existing gun regulation, moving beyond what many states’ laws, including those in Michigan, enforce.

Under the executive action, proxy-business private sellers now must use background checks before selling firearms.

The original clause allowing those sellers to skip background checks was intended for individuals who are not selling guns as a business and only sell a few times in their lifetimes, but it has since been used by many groups of for-profit sellers using proxy-businesses, such as individuals who sell firearms at gun shows. 

Under Michigan law, individuals buying handguns are required to undergo a background check, but that requirement isn’t in place for the sale of other firearms. Sixteen other states also require a background check before some or all purchases; the rest don’t require any checks. 

The move was criticized by several prominent national gun rights groups on the grounds that it encroached on their rights. In a statement Monday, Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, said the action harassed and intimidated gun owners.

“The timing of this announcement, in the eighth and final year of his presidency, demonstrates not only political exploitation but a fundamental lack of seriousness,” the statement read. “The proposed executive actions are ripe for abuse by the Obama Administration, which has made no secret of its contempt for the Second Amendment.”

Law Prof. Julian Mortenson said criticisms that the action infringes on Second Amendment rights are misfounded due to the Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller. Heller upheld Second Amendment rights for individual owners, but included a clause limiting the use of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, two aspects that background checks are used to flag.  

“It’s not a serious argument under current Supreme Court doctrine,” he said. “The idea that background checks would be anything other than a reasonable technical method of achieving what the Supreme Court has basically said is perfectly fine is too much to swallow. I would not want to be the lawyer who had to argue that case.”

Looking to the state of Michigan, state Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said Michigan state law does little to expand on federal law in terms of gun control, though multiple bills have been introduced over past years to change that.

He pointed specifically to the inclusion of the right to own a gun in the state constitution.

“Michigan is one of many states that has not taken any opportunity to go further than the federal regulations,” he said. “Michigan also has a constitutional provision referencing gun rights. It has language that basically says you have the right to own a gun in a way that is more straightforward than in the U.S. Constitution.”

In May, Irwin co-sponsored House Bill 4590, which would take a step beyond the executive action and require universal background checks for all firearm purchases.

The bill was first introduced in 2011 and has subsequently been introduced each year following, but has not been brought to a vote. The legislation aims to ensure firearm transactions are done with background checks in order to increase public safety.

“That’s the kind of thing that needs to happen at the state level,” Irwin said. “We need to close the loophole and make sure as many sales as possible are being performed with a background check so we keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals.”

Public Health Prof. Marc Zimmerman said the issue surrounding gun control should not be viewed as a rights issue, but a public safety one.

“The more we talk about guns as public safety the more reasonable we can all be,” he said. “As a public health professor, anything we can do to prevent injury whether it’s a fall from snow or shooting from guns, I think it’s a good thing, and I don’t think this infringes on people’s rights.”

Irwin said background checks are one of the best ways to improve public safety and that the majority of Americans support universal background checks. An October CBS/New York Times poll found that 92 percent of Americans support background checks on all buyers.

“This is an idea that Democrats in general and myself have been talking about for years,” Irwin said. “This is the simplest, easiest thing we can do to increase safety in a way that almost all Americans agree with.”


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