WASHINGTON — Even as he prepares to take action on gun violence on his own authority, President Obama could turn to another source of potential source of executive action: The nation’s governors.
The White House is in talks with governors and other state and local officials as part of a bottom-up strategy to better enforce gun laws at both the state and local level. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Vice President Biden has been leading the talks, which are focused on “steps they can take to try to reduce gun violence in their communities.”
The state-and-local approach to guns is another example of a strategy that’s been a unique part of the “fourth quarter” of the Obama presidency. Unable to get his policies through Congress, he’s increasingly using aggressive outreach to states and cities to raise the minimum wage, require paid time off, expand preschool programs and offer more affordable college options.
“I think what people are realizing, and I have realized as governor, is that we have a tremendous number of tools at our disposal to take action,” said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who signed an executive order on guns in October. It required gun tracing for all guns used in crimes, started a gun crime tip line and banned guns in state office buildings.
Republicans in the Virginia legislature called those actions “shortsighted,” and threatened to repeal them in the next legislative session.
But McAuliffe said the White House has been very supportive. “I think they realize that when they’re stymied at the congressional level, that governors are willing to step up,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group, will release a report outlining 28 things governors and other state and local executives can do to better enforce gun laws already on the books. Recommendations include investigations into all failed background checks, increased use of gun tracing by state police and state-funded research into the causes of gun violence.
With the stroke of a pen, governors and mayors could also require background checks at gun shows held on state or city property, and use their purchasing power to require gun manufacturers to prove they’re selling guns responsibly.
While previous gun safety efforts have focused on presidential action and state and federal legislation, “we came to realize there was also an executive action piece on the state level that hadn’t been thoroughly considered,” said Chelsea Parsons, the center’s vice president of guns and crime policy.
The recommendations are significant because the Center for American Progress has close ties to policymakers in the White House and to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It was founded by John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Clinton who later joined the Obama White House and now chairs Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign organization.
Sometimes governors can do things the federal government can’t. Unlike federal law, Connecticut law already requires a permit to purchase or own a firearm — giving the executive branch the authority to issue or deny a permit. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy said last week that authority could allow him to issue an executive order banning people on the federal terror watch list, known as the “No Fly” list, from buying a gun.
The National Rifle Association and other civil rights groups argue such move would be unconstitutional because people can get on the no-fly list even without being convicted of a crime. Malloy acknowledged there are still details to be worked out, like how the state would get access to a list tightly controlled by the FBI.
“Clearly the White House is working on it. … They think it’s a great idea,” Malloy said. “I’m hopeful that the road will be cleared so that states who want to prevent people on the terror watch list from buying guns can do so.”
The White House has said the president’s lawyers are “scrubbing through the law” to see if there’s any other executive orders Obama can sign to further regulate gun sales. At a memorial service for victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting last week, Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said the White House would continue to push for congressional and executive action action at the federal level “while also channeling our efforts in cities and states across America.”
She noted that many states are already beginning to expand gun background checks. “And that gives me hope,” she said.
But the White House acknowledges that a state-and-local strategy also has some shortcomings. “When you’re passing local laws, sometimes it can be a little too easy for somebody to just drive right outside that jurisdiction, purchase a firearm that may be prohibited in the city, and drive back into the city and carry out an act of violence,” Earnest said.
“It’s not at all uncommon for White House officials to be engaged in conversations with state and local officials about advancing shared priorities,” Earnest said last week. “And we know that there are many local and state officials across the country who are quite concerned about the impact of gun violence in the communities that they govern.”
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