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Gun Owners of America vs. American Constitution Society: A Debate on Obama’s Gun Executive Orders

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As President Obama announces plans to use executive actions to strengthen gun control regulations, we host a debate between John Velleco, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, and Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As President Obama announced plans to use executive actions to strengthen gun control regulations, he condemned Congress for blocking efforts to reduce gun violence.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to an inherently deadly weapon—nobody argues that guns are potentially deadly—weapons that kill tens of thousands of Americans every year, Congress actually voted to make it harder for public health experts to conduct research into gun violence, made it harder to collect data and facts, and develop strategies to reduce gun violence. Even after San Bernardino, they’ve refused to make it harder for terror suspects, who can’t get on a plane, to buy semi-automatic weapons. That’s not right. That can’t be right. So the gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they cannot hold America hostage. We do not have to accept this carnage as the price of freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a debate on President Obama’s plan to take executive action to reduce gun violence. We’re joined by two guests. In Washington, John Velleco is with us, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America. And Caroline Fredrickson joins us, president of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

Caroline Fredrickson, let’s begin with you. Can you lay out exactly what these executive actions are?

CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: Well, the president is basically doing what he is required to do under the Constitution, which is to faithfully execute the laws. The Supreme Court has laid out that there are quite a number of regulations that are consistent with the Second Amendment. Congress has passed laws requiring licensing and background checks. And what President Obama has done is moved to clarify the law about who’s subject to a background check, and make sure that we actually have the resources to enforce those background checks, so that people who have been barred from buying a gun by Congress, dangerous people, who are dangerous felons or have a mental illness that makes them incompetent to have a gun, or those who are violent domestic abusers—and what President Obama has done is moved to clarify the law to make sure that those people actually are really not getting guns, and make sure that there is some enforcement behind the laws that Congress has duly passed and that have been understood by the Supreme Court to be consistent with the Second Amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: John Velleco, how do you feel about President Obama’s announcement yesterday?

JOHN VELLECO: Well, the president is redefining the law. He’s really changing the law, because the Congress has been very clear on things such as what constitutes a federally licensed gun dealer. And so, in changing the law, he’s taking on the role of the legislative branch, and he’s reinterpreting laws and taking on the role of the judicial branch. So, he’s not operating—I mean, President Obama is really in full community activist mode now, and he’s trying to do what he can to get around the Congress. And he’s really thumbing his nose at the will and the wisdom of the American people, which is represented through their elected officials in Washington, which the Congress has, not once or twice, but on many occasions, voted on and voted down proposals such as the president is trying to push, such as universal background checks and closing the so-called gun show loophole.

AMY GOODMAN: Caroline Fredrickson, what do you feel is wrong with—what do you—how do you respond, I should say, to John Velleco saying that he’s defying Congress?

CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: Well, you know, we worked with a group of constitutional law experts who have laid out very clearly that within the understanding of the Constitution and the president’s executive authority, he is clearly empowered to do what he needs to do to make sure our laws are enforced. You know, in essence, what it comes down to is the question of who’s in the business of selling firearms. And I think we all have to take a step back and think about that, because what the president is basically saying, in the 21st century, when so much commerce goes on over the Internet, and we recognize that—you know, that a crime that would exist—say, for example, selling child pornography, if you sell it at a newsstand, that’s illegal; if you decide to sell it over the Internet, it’s still illegal. And so, what’s essentially happening is the president has acknowledged that the Internet exists, and it exists for firearms sales. How many people are buying books and clothes and all sorts of things over the Internet, and they know they’re buying those things? Because it’s on the Internet does not make it somehow outside of commerce. It’s fully in commerce.

And so, we need to move into the 21st century when it comes to gun sales, as well, and make sure that we don’t have this enormous loophole that large sellers of firearms are getting around our really, really significant, important background checks, because I think all of us—and as Lucy, who was so very articulate and compelling, who spoke before, had mentioned, you know, 90 percent of NRA card-carrying members agree that background checks are fully consistent with the Second Amendment and should be enforced. So I think, let’s just be realistic and commonsensical, and make sure that the 21st century sees 21st century technologies governed by the same laws that have governed brick-and-mortar commerce prior to this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: John Velleco, do you think the sale of guns should be limited in any way?

JOHN VELLECO: Well, what the president is doing is he’s redefining what a gun dealer is, and he’s saying that a private individual, who can sell as few as one or two guns, should be classified as a federally licensed firearm dealer, which means you’re getting a license with the BATF, being subject to inspections by the BATF, paying fees. For people who sell—there’s no number on it. So, this is very dangerous for private individuals who want to sell a part of their collection or if they just want to engage in private transactions, and the penalties are very severe. It’s a five-year prison penalty and a $250,000 fine. So what the president is doing is, even though the Congress has already said no to the universal background check system and making the federal government so much more involved in private transactions, he’s going around that and really threatening private individuals who want to sell from their own collection, you know, with imprisonment and huge fines. So, you know, he’s going about this the wrong way.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Caroline Fredrickson—

JOHN VELLECO: These laws need to go through the Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: —on this issue of private gun sales, explain what the president is now going to enforce.

CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: Well, you know, under the regulatory regime, there are a number of criteria that go into the examination of whether someone’s in the business of selling firearms. And what this essentially does is it says, offline, online, we should look at those indicia of whether someone is engaged in the business of selling firearms, and those people should be subject to the licensing requirements and doing background checks. And, come on, we all want to be safe on the streets. We want to have those same requirements applied to gun sellers who meet those criteria, again, whether they’re selling out of a storefront or whether they’re selling over the Internet.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, who talked about background checks on his show last night.

BILL O’REILLY: On the other side, the NRA and the gun owners should be reasonable. The FBI should background check anyone buying a firearm in America. That just makes sense. If you are paranoid and believe the government is stockpiling information so they can come to your house and take your guns, that’s your problem. Your problem. But the government has an obligation to enhance public safety.

AMY GOODMAN: John Velleco, can you respond to Bill O’Reilly on Fox?

JOHN VELLECO: Well, the government has an obligation to protect liberty. And what Bill O’Reilly is saying is that the government powers should be massively increased to be involved in private sales of a lawful product. And I would simply disagree with that. It would be unconstitutional. You have the Supreme Court, has said that the right to keep, bear arms is a fundamental right. That means people can’t just lose it without their due process of law. But when you start regulating private transactions between individuals, that’s exactly what is happening, is people are losing their ability to engage in their Second Amendment rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Caroline Fredrickson, can you explain what gun trusts are?

CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: Sure, but first I just have to comment on the fact that Bill O’Reilly and the Gun Owners of America are in a different place. And I think that just reflects that the NRA and Gun Owners of America, those two organizations, are so far outside of the mainstream, when, you know, we’ve got 90-plus percent of Americans who support these commonsense restrictions on gun ownership. And I can’t say that I have ever—you know, there has been a great frequency in which I have agreed with Bill O’Reilly, but here I’m 100 percent on his side. So I just think that reflects how isolated and extreme those opponents of these very simple and not very far-reaching—which they, themselves, acknowledge these are not huge steps, they’re fairly minor, and nonetheless they’re going to oppose them with all of their forces. So, you know, that’s just a question for themselves of why they’re opposing these very limited movements forward to make America a safer place.

But a gun trust is just—you know, it’s just a shell game that certain sellers set up. It’s trying to get out from under the law and the requirements by setting up a trust that somehow—that doesn’t fit the legal definition of who needs to get a license to sell. It’s just—it’s another loophole that needs to be closed down. And that’s another area in which President Obama has moved to make sure that our—that the enforcement of the laws actually reflects the spirit of the laws, that were passed to make sure that we keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump criticized President Obama’s plan.

DONALD TRUMP: The Second Amendment—the Second Amendment is so important. They’re trying—they’re not going to take your guns away, folks. They’re not going to take your guns away, not going to do it. They’re trying. They’re talking about the bullets. They’re talking about—and then, as you see, President Obama is on television.

AMY GOODMAN: And Senator Ted Cruz, also presidential candidate, criticized Obama’s actions.

SEN. TED CRUZ: This morning, President Obama is announcing new executive orders to try to go after our Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Well, I can tell you right now, those executive orders are not worth the paper they’re printed on, because when you live by the pen, you die by the pen. And my pen has got an eraser.

AMY GOODMAN: John Velleco, your response? Do you feel any presidential candidate represents your point of view adequately?

JOHN VELLECO: Yes, I think many of them do, and particularly Ted Cruz, who understands that once he gets in office, he can reverse these executive orders, which—and I would contend that these are not minor, limited orders. These are very far-reaching. And I think when people start to realize what is actually going on here with these orders, they’re going to see that millions and millions of people who have not been convicted of any crime in any court of law are being denied their Second Amendment rights. And particularly, the president is directing the Social Security Administration to provide names to the FBI of people who are beneficiaries, who have—who are determined to be unable to handle their affairs. So, that means potentially millions of senior citizens and their gun collections that they’ve acquired over lifetimes could be in jeopardy through this action. That is not insignificant to allow the Social Security Administration to prohibit people from owning guns through the FBI NICS check.

AMY GOODMAN: Caroline Fredrickson, can you address John Velleco’s concern?

CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: Sure. Well, I mean, first I would just say, I was only parroting back the statement of the NRA spokeswoman, who said that these were no big deal. And so, I just—I think they’re important steps. I do think they’re pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. As Lucy mentioned earlier, and, again, so compellingly, there is so much more that can and should be done to ensure that Americans are safer and that we have some reasonable gun restrictions. You know, but at bottom, these efforts are quite justified and really limited. And the fact of the matter is that Congress has already prohibited people who are mentally—severely mentally ill from owning a gun. And don’t we all think that’s actually a good idea? The fact of the matter is, we just don’t have a great enforcement mechanism, and so they’re moving forward to try and address that. And that is what the executive order is all about.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank John Velleco for joining us, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, also the group’s federal lobbyist.

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