President Barack Obama’s move to tighten controls on guns could curb the unregulated buying and selling of weapons over the Internet and at gun shows. But the overall effect on violence in the U.S. could prove to be modest.
The president used his executive authority Tuesday to clarify that anyone “in the business” of selling firearms must obtain a federal license and conduct background checks on prospective buyers, regardless of where the sales take place.
Currently, many private sellers online and at gun shows do not bother to get licenses, and weapons sales over the Internet have become a booming business.
The White House and others can’t say how many transactions the step will block or how much bloodshed it may prevent.
But the new controls probably wouldn’t have prevented many of the grisly mass shootings around the country that have led to demands for tighter gun laws, and may affect only a tiny fraction of the nation’s 30,000 annual gun deaths.
Studies in the last decade have shown that criminals are more likely to get guns directly from friends or other social connections than at gun shows or flea markets.
The president’s action “has potential impact — the degree or the type, it’s hard to predict,” said University of Pennsylvania professor Susan Sorenson, who studies violence prevention. “And it’s really important to acknowledge that we can’t just have one change and expect that to change things wildly.”
The White House did not set a threshold for the number of guns someone has to sell to be covered by the licensing and background check requirement. But it warned that people can be charged with a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison for selling as few as two firearms when there is evidence they are running a business, such as selling weapons in their original packaging and for a profit.