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 1994 assault weapons ban, out of an apparent fear that Obama would crack down on gun ownership. The Obama presidency, however, had limited impact gun rights.

Obama’s 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 supplying 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.”

Summary of Gun Rights During Obama’s First Term

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. Instead, Obama urged local, state, and federal authorities to stringently enforce existing gun control laws.

In fact, the only two major gun-related laws enacted during the Obama administration’s first term actually expand the rights of gun owners.

The first of these laws, which took effect in February 2012, allows people to openly carry legally owned guns in national parks. The law replaced a Ronald Reagan era policy that required guns to remain locked in glove compartments or trunks of private vehicles that enter national parks.

In addressing this law, Obama surprised his pro-gun right critics when he wrote, “In this country, we have a strong tradition of gun ownership that's handed from generation to generation. Hunting and shooting are part of our national heritage. And, in fact, my administration has not curtailed the rights of gun owners - it has expanded them, including allowing people to carry their guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.”

The other law allows Amtrak passengers to carry guns in checked baggage; a reversal of a measure put in place by President George W. Bush in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Obama’s two nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan were considered likely to rule against 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 an expansion of gun rights, including the monumental Heller decision in 2008 and McDonald decision in 2010.

Earlier in his first term, Obama had expressed his express support for the Second Amendment. “If you’ve got a rifle, you’ve got a shotgun, you’ve got a gun in your house, I’m not taking it away. Alright?” he said.

Gun Rights During Obama’s Second Term

On January 16, 2013 — just two months after 26 people were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut — President Obama kicked off his second term by promising an “overhaul” of gun laws to end what he called the nation’s “epidemic” of gun violence

However, the legislation to overhaul gun control failed on April 17, 2013, when the Republican-controlled Senate rejected a measure banning assault-style weapons and expanding gun-buyer background checks.

In January 2016, President Obama began his final year in office by going around the gridlocked Congress by issuing a set of executive orders intended to reduce gun violence.

According to a White House Fact Sheet, the measures aimed to improve background checks on gun buyers, increase community safety, provide additional federal funding for mental health treatment, and advance the development of “smart gun” technology.

Obama’s Gun Rights Legacy

During his eight years in office, President Barack Obama had to deal with more mass shootings than any of his predecessors, speaking to the nation on the subject of gun violence at least 14 times.

In each address, Obama offered sympathy for the loved ones of the deceased victims and repeated his frustration with the Republican-controlled Congress to pass stronger gun control legislation. After each address, gun sales soared.

In the end, however, Obama made little progress in advancing his “common-sense gun laws” at the federal government level — a fact he would later call one of the biggest regrets of his time as president.

In 2015, Obama told the BBC that his inability to pass gun laws had been “the one area where I feel that I've been most frustrated and most stymied."

Updated by Robert Longley

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Garrett, Ben. "President Barack Obama and Gun Rights." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Garrett, Ben. (2020, August 25). President Barack Obama and Gun Rights. Retrieved from Garrett, Ben. "President Barack Obama and Gun Rights." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 14, 2021).