President Barack Obama and Gun Rights

The Obama Administration's Impact on the Second Amendment

President Obama And President Hollande Hold Joint News Conference In The East Room
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, many gun owners worried about the consequences of victory for Democrat candidate Barack Obama. Given Obama’s record as an Illinois state senator, where he stated his support for an all-out ban on handguns, among other gun control stances, pro-gun advocates were concerned that gun rights might suffer under an Obama presidential administration. 

National Rifle Association Executive Director Wayne LaPierre  said prior to the 2008 election that “never in NRA's history have we faced a presidential candidate — and hundreds of candidates running for other offices — with such a deep-rooted hatred of firearm freedoms.” 

After Obama’s election, gun sales reached a record pace as gun owners snatched up guns, particularly those that had been branded assault weapons under the defunct 994 Assault Weapons ban, out of an apparent fear that Obama would crack down on gun ownership. The Obama presidency, however, has been largely uneventful in terms of how it has impacted gun rights.

Obama’s anti-gun record as state lawmaker

When Obama was running for the Illinois state senate in 1996, the Independent Voters of Illinois, a Chicago-based non-profit, issued a questionnaire asking if candidates supported legislation to “ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns,” to “ban assault weapons” and to instate “mandatory waiting periods and background checks” for gun purchases. Obama answered yes on all three accounts.

When that survey came to light during his run for the White House in 2008, Obama’s campaign said that a staffer had filled out the survey and that some of the answers did not represent Obama’s views, “then or now.”

Obama also cosponsored legislation to limit handgun purchases to one per month. He also voted against letting people violate local weapons bans in cases of self-defense, and stated his support for the District of Columbia’s handgun ban that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008. He also called it a “scandal” that President George W.

Bush did not authorize a renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama said that he had “no intention of taking away folks’ guns,” but added that he would support “reasonable, thoughtful gun control measures” that respected the Second Amendment while also “cracking down on the various loopholes that exist.” He expressed his intent, as president, to make sure law enforcement was given access to information that would allow them to trace guns used in crimes back to “unscrupulous gun dealers.”

Obama and Assault Weapons

Just weeks after Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, attorney general Eric Holder announced at a press conference that the Obama administration would be seeking a renewal of the expired ban on assault weapons.

“As President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons,” Holder said.

To gun owners wary of increased pressure on gun rights, the announcement seemed to serve as validation of their pre-election fears. But the Obama administration dismissed Holder’s statements. When asked about a renewal of the assault weapon ban, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said “the president believes there are other strategies we can take to enforce the laws that are already on the books.”

U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-New York, introduced legislation to renew the ban. However, the legislation did not receive an endorsement from Obama.

 ‘Common Sense’ Gun Control 

In the aftermath of a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Obama renewed his push for “common sense” measures to tighten gun regulations and close the so-called gun show loophole. 

While not specifically calling for new gun control measures, Obama recommended strengthening the National Instant Background Check system in place for gun purchases and rewarding states supplyin the best data that would keep guns out of the hands of those the system is meant to weed out.

Later, Obama directed the Department of Justice to begin talks about gun control, involving “all stakeholders” in the issue.

The National Rifle Association declined an invitation to join the talks, with LaPierre saying there is little use in sitting down with people who have “dedicated their lives” to reducing gun rights.

As the summer of 2011 ended, however, those talks had not led to recommendations by the Obama administration for new or tougher gun laws.

Strengthened Gun Reporting on the Border

One of the Obama administration’s few actions on the subject of guns has been to strengthen a 1975 law that requires gun dealers to report the sale of multiple handguns to the same buyer. The heightened regulation, which took effect in August 2011, requires gun dealers in the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to report the sale of multiple assault-style rifles, such as AK-47s and AR-15s. 

The NRA filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to block the new regulation from taking effect, calling it a move by the administration to “pursue their gun control agenda.”

Lasting Effect of Obama Administration

While the final chapter of the Obama administration’s impact on gun rights will not be written until the president leaves office in 2013 or 2017, the story through much of his first term in office was a neutral one. Congress did not take up serious consideration of new gun control laws, nor did Obama ask them to. When Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm, chances of far-reaching gun control laws being enacted were essentially squashed.

Obama’s two nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, are likely to rule unfavorably to gun owners on issues involving the Second Amendment. However, the appointees did not shift the balance of power on the court. The new justices replaced David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens, two justices who had consistently voted against expansion of gun rights, including the monumental Heller decision in 2008 and McDonald decision in 2010.

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Garrett, Ben. "President Barack Obama and Gun Rights." ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2016, Garrett, Ben. (2016, February 27). President Barack Obama and Gun Rights. Retrieved from Garrett, Ben. "President Barack Obama and Gun Rights." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 22, 2017).