President Obama’s latest executive order, announced as we send this issue to press, is hardly surprising. Having failed to convince Congress three years ago to pass new gun-control laws requiring background checks on all gun purchases, the President had used every mass shooting since—including the jihadist attack in San Bernardino—to rail against the current state of gun-control legislation. Even his most devoted defenders, however, had begun to question his commitment to change, since he was making no effort to try to convince any member of Congress to advance a new bill concerning what he calls “common sense gun control.”
What his defenders forgot is that this President does not like to lose, and the defeat of his gun-control legislation in the weeks after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre had left him visibly angry. In the wake of the 2014 elections, there was no reason to believe that Congress would be more inclined to agree with his call for further restrictions on private sales of firearms than they had been two years earlier. Caught between the rock of Congress and the hard place of public-opinion polls, President Obama did what he and every other president in recent memory has done when the legislative branch of the federal government chooses not to pass the laws he wishes it to pass: He arrogated the legislative power to himself.
The reactions, so far, have been predictable: Those who favor gun control have cheered on the President; those who favor gun rights have condemned him. (Those who believe that the President should faithfully execute the laws that Congress chooses to pass are now so few and far between that their voices are not even heard.)
There has been one notable exception to the predictable reactions, however, and it has come from an unexpected source: the National Rifle Association.
“This is it, really?” Jennifer Baker, a lobbyist for the NRA rhetorically asked a reporter for the New York Times. “This is what they’ve been hyping for how long now? This is the proposal they’ve spent seven years putting together? They’re not really doing anything.”
This is most likely not what the average NRA member was hoping to hear from someone whose Washington lobbyist salary amounts to several thousand NRA members’ annual dues, especially because, as the Times notes, “White House officials said someone could sell as few as one or two guns yet still be considered a dealer whose sales are subject to background checks.” In other words, even a private owner looking to sell a gun to a friend or relative—the very kind of person whom the NRA aggressively recruits—might find an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives knocking on his door, or knocking it down.
So why is the NRA so seemingly unconcerned? It’s possible that the answer is that they’re not—indeed, quite the opposite. In the current political climate, guns are more feared than terrorists—at least Islamic ones; the over-the-hill white guys of Y’All Qaeda are, of course, a different question, because they like their guns as much as their snacks. If the NRA comes out aggressively against the President’s executive order, their members will quite reasonably expect them to challenge it in court. Yet if they do challenge it, it’s hardly guaranteed that they will prevail—in part because the White House very carefully crafted the order to make it appear that it is clarifying previous legislation rather than creating new laws by executive fiat. And the NRA, just like President Obama, does not like to lose.
This does not mean that the executive order won’t be challenged, or even that the NRA itself won’t challenge it. But to the average gun owner, the kind who ponies up his dues every year in the expectation that the NRA will fight for his rights, the NRA’s initial reaction to this executive order should serve as a wake-up call. Just because someone says he has your back doesn’t mean that he always will.
Scott P. Richert is editor at large for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and Publisher for Our Sunday Visitor. He holds an M.A. in political theory from the Catholic University of America. He has been published in, among others, The Family in America, This World, and Humanitas. He is the Catholicism Expert for About.com.