President Donald Trump this week said his administration has done “much more than most” to help curb mass shootings in the United States.
While Trump boasts of action on firearms, his administration has actually eased gun restrictions over the past two and a half years.
Federal agencies have implemented more than half a dozen policy changes — primarily through little-noticed regulatory moves — that expand access to guns by lifting firearms bans in certain locations and limiting the names on the national database designed to keep firearms away from dangerous people. The administration asked the Supreme Court to overturn New York City restrictions on transporting handguns outside homes. And it pushed to allow U.S. gunmakers to more easily sell firearms overseas, including the types used in mass shootings.
“This president has in a very intentional, sweeping way made it easier for people to access firearms, not more difficult,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a vice chair of the House Gun Prevention Task Force. “He’s systematically gone and undone all the protections that were put in place to try to limit the ability of dangerous people to access firearms.”
Trump’s critics say they aren’t surprised by his actions after he received an early and strong endorsement from the National Rifle Association, one of his top donors that contributed $30 million to his 2016 campaign and blasted his Democratic opponent in TV ads. After he was sworn into office, Trump vowed repeatedly to repay gun owners for their support.
This week, after two mass shootings 13 hours apart took 31 lives in Texas and Ohio, Trump took credit for changes he said are helping to cut down on violence — while he proposed new vague changes to policies involving social media, video games and mental health.
Last year, Trump backed Congress in increasing penalties on agencies that do not report information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and giving millions to schools to combat violence. This year, his Justice Department banned bump stocks — a device that allows a semiautomatic rifle to be used continuously with one pull of a trigger. It was used in a Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead in 2017.
“We have done much more than most administrations,” Trump said in his first public remarks on the shootings Sunday. “It’s … really not talked about very much, but we’ve done, actually, a lot. But perhaps more has to be done.”
But those changes were narrow, lengthy and, in the case of the bump stock ban, could be reversed by the next president because it is not written into law.
William Vizzard, who spent nearly three decades at the ATF, described the restrictions as modest. “On a scale of 1 to 100, they’re about a 2,” he said.
The White House and the NRA didn’t return requests for comment. In an earlier statement, the NRA said it “welcomes the president’s call to address the root causes of the horrific acts of violence that have occurred in our country.“
Before he ran for president, Trump had supported several Democratic-backed proposals, including a ban on assault weapons and waiting period for firearms purchases. But after his inauguration, he made policy changes backed by the NRA. Most of them bypassed Congress, where firearms changes are difficult to pass.
“The response has largely parroted the talking points of the NRA,” said Chelsea Parsons, vice president of gun violence prevention at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Perhaps the most significant change was revoking a regulation making it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy guns that his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, enacted after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The Obama regulation had required the government to add those eligible for Social Security Administration mental disability payments to the national database and block them from buying guns. The Obama administration estimated it would have added 75,000 names to the database.
In addition, the Trump Justice Department narrowed the definition of “fugitive,” excluding people from being added to the national database and barred from buying a gun.
The FBI had considered a fugitive a person who left the city or county where a warrant had been issued for their arrest. But the DOJ adopted ATF’s narrower definition, describing a fugitive as a person who either crossed state lines to avoid prosecution or to avoid giving testimony.
The changes, according to a senior DOJ official, came after the department’s Office of Legal Counsel determined in 2016 that the existence of a warrant — without anything further — would not meet “that statutory threshold based on the language passed by Congress.”
The Interior Department also has made a series of changes, expanding the areas where hunting is permissible, including on federal lands in Alaska, and rescinding a ban on hunting with lead ammunition in national parks and wildlife refuges.
“Hunting and fishing are more than just traditional pastimes as they are also vital to the conservation of our lands and waters, our outdoor recreation economy, and our American way of life,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in June when announcing the expansion of hunting at 74 national wildlife refuges.
The ATF delayed a rule proposed during the Obama administration that would have made gun-safety devices more easily available where firearms are sold.
The administration is currently working on a change to the small-arms export policy that critics say would make it easier for gun makers to sell weapons to foreign buyers. The proposal would transfer supervision from the State Department to the Commerce Department, which provides less oversight on sales. It would also make 3-D printed weapons, which are largely undetectable, more easily available. Some lawmakers are trying to stop the change.
“Loosening this regulation, as the Trump administration is proposing to do, will have broad national security and human rights implications outside the U.S.,” said Adzi Vokhiwa, federal affairs manager at Giffords, which was founded by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords after she was shot. “But even here in the U.S., it would make it much easier for a domestic terrorist or someone who is under the age of 18 or someone who is prohibited from purchasing or possessing a fireman to just go online to one of these websites, download the blueprint and print their own gun.”
In May, the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to overturn New York City’s restrictions on transporting handguns outside the home, arguing the rule violated the Second Amendment and put illegal restrictions on interstate commerce.
Before the high court could act, New York City changed the law to allow residents to take their guns to seven shooting ranges in the city. Gun owners still can’t take their guns to other homes and shooting ranges even with safety measures in place.
In another pending court case, the federal government indicated it is considering rescinding the Army Corps of Engineers’ ban on carrying loaded firearms and ammunition on federal lands. The Army Corps of Engineers has had a decade-long ban on carrying loaded firearms and ammunition on its 12 million acres of land. Courts have differed on whether the ban is legal.
The ban remains in place but the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged Tuesday that it may make the change. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reconsidering the regulation that governs the possession and transportation of firearms and other weapons at Army Corps of Engineers water resources development projects,” said Doug Garman, a spokesman of Army Corps of Engineers.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine