Editorial: Distrust poisons the gun debate

Published 12:05 am Thursday, January 7, 2016

Congressional leaders who say President Obama is overreaching with an executive order regarding gun sales had the power to prevent him from setting this precedent. They could have passed reasonable measures to tighten background checks and direct more funding toward mental health.

Instead, Congress defeated every gun-related measure that came down the pike, even a proposal to prohibit people on the terrorism watch list from buying guns. Now the lawmakers who have fought gun proposals condemn Obama’s tame order as an assault on the Second Amendment and an attempt to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. Sooner or later the American public will decide the gun crowd has cried “wolf” too often.

Obama’s 10-point order is surprisingly modest. A key provision would require more gun sellers to be licensed, such as those doing business over the Internet and at gun shows. The president authorized the FBI to hire 230 more personnel to help process background checks 24/7. He also called for $500 million more in federal funding to treat mental illness.

The National Rifle Association was gearing up for something more aggressive from the president, but even gun dealers like parts of Obama’s order. This reflects the nation’s powerful mixed feelings on guns. Several surveys have found widespread support for expanded background checks. But surveys also find people skeptical about the government’s ability to legislate the matter, according to Pew Research Center. “Many voiced suspicions that the bill would go too far or that it would be a ‘slippery slope’ toward stricter gun controls,” Pew reported this week.

Distrust is the theme of today’s politics. Another recent Pew survey found that just 19 percent say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. The nation would have no gun laws at all if the current mindset had prevailed in the 20th century.

In light of this deep cynicism — and national alarm over mass shootings —  an executive order that essentially calls for better enforcement of existing gun laws may be the best today’s leaders can do.