President Barack Obama's hopes of comprehensive gun control legislation probably died in April, when the Manchin-Toomey bill failed to get the 60 votes it needed to overcome an expected filibuster in the Senate.
Obama can still, however, notch small victories in the gun control battle with two new "executive actions":
1. Closing a loophole that lets people avoid the mandatory background check on buying certain weapons, such as machine guns and short-barreled shotguns, by registering them to a trust or corporation.
2. Banning military-grade weapons sold to other countries from being exported back to the United States, with a few exceptions for museums and other buyers.
Obama still needs congressional approval for his more ambitious goals, like extending background checks to gun shows and online sales. Vice President Joe Biden said as much when announcing the new actions at the White House.
"If Congress won't act, we'll fight for a new Congress," he told reporters. "It's that simple."
But if Republicans maintain their control of the House in 2014, Obama and Biden might have to be satisfied with minor steps like these. So what exactly is an "executive action"?
It's a little complicated. Executive actions are not "executive orders," which, as NBC News' Shawna Thomas pointed out, are presidential directives "with the force of law."
New York's Dan Amira described an executive action as "a vague term that can refer to anything done by the executive (the president)."
In January, Obama issued 23 of them related to gun control, including nominating a new ATF director and improving incentives for states to share background check information.
1. Federal agencies make information available to the federal background check system.
2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research the causes and prevention of gun violence.
3. Federal law enforcement trace all guns recovered in criminal investigations.
So, basically, an executive action is not an executive order, except that sometimes it kind of is — when it's a presidential memorandum.
Regardless, President Obama doesn't have the power to create new laws, as opponents of gun control might fear. But he can demand stricter enforcement of current laws or direct an agency to alter its focus or practices (a power that is poorly defined, sometimes controversial, and often confused by the media).
The latest actions, however, were not memoranda, but rather a proposal for a new rule on background checks and an administrative decision to stop accepting applications for new purchases of imported military-grade weapons.
Still, the National Rifle Association bristled at Obama's modest attempts to strengthen gun laws.
"Requiring background checks for corporations and trusts does not keep firearms out of the hands of criminals," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "Prohibiting the re-importation of firearms into the U.S. that were manufactured 50 or more years ago does not keep firearms out of the hands of criminals."
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