Without much warning or fanfare, the Obama administration quietly announced two new executive actions on gun control Thursday morning.
One new rule closed a background-check loophole whereby those ineligible to purchase guns could register the firearms to a corporation or trust. The executive order mandated that those associated with such organizations must undergo the same background checks as individuals seeking to register guns. The other rule halts the re-import of military-grade weapons, donated to U.S. allies, back into the United States by private entities.
Vice President Joe Biden briefly spoke about the new executive orders in the Roosevelt Room on Thursday during the swearing-in ceremony of Todd Jones, the new director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"The president and I are going to continue to do work with the Congress to continue to strengthen gun safety laws in this country," Biden said. "If Congress doesn't act, we'll fight for a new Congress. It's that simple. But we're going to get this done."
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, two of the most prominent national organizations advocating for gun control laws, praised the executive actions, but the new policies were a far cry from the sweeping gun control legislation Obama pushed for in the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut.
When even a modest proposal to strengthen background checks failed to clear the Senate in April, Obama held a ceremony in the Rose Garden to vow that the fight wasn't over.
But there's been scarce movement on the issue in the months since then. Although the White House has said that senators who voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill the first time around have privately agreed to reconsider, none of those lawmakers has made such an admission in public.
Polling has consistently found that a majority of Americans are in favor of expanded background checks.
Robert Spitzer, political science professor at the State University of New York and the author of four books on gun policy, called the new executive actions "small bore" but ultimately the best the White House could do in the face of hardened opposition.
"Big changes in gun policy and in most policy arenas eventually run through Congress, and we know that the current Congress is not disposed to enact anything on anything, and certainly not anything that is endorsed by President Obama," said Spitzer. "To announce them in a low-key and backhanded way reflects the still-volatile landscape of gun control politics."
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of the social policy and politics program at the center-left think tank Third Way, said the actions mainly served as a symbolic gesture to signal that the Obama administration was not conceding on the gun control front.
"The president's actions are definitely a good step toward keeping public attention that Congress hasn't acted yet," Hatalsky said. "They've done everything they can do without Congress, and the things that they can still do are pretty small."
She added that continuing incidents of gun violence also promise to keep the issue alive in the months to come, as Congress reconvenes.
Meanwhile, Missouri, among other states with GOP-led legislatures, has pushed for legislation that would nullify federal gun legislation. That's of little practical impact, said Spitzer.
"We resolved that in the Civil War, in the 1860s, as a matter of law," he said, referring to pro-slavery Southern states that moved to "nullify" federal statutes that ran counter to their ideology. "It is a symbolic way to please the very conservative base."