Let's preface this morning's update on President Obama's gun control executive actions, announced yesterday by a sometimes lachrymose Obama, by asking: Shouldn't he be focusing on the Middle East rather than this?

Nicholas Johnson, a Fordham University law professor and author of "Firearms Law and the Second Amendment," suggests today in the Wall Street Journal that the president's firearms actions are a "glittery distraction" that will have Americans at each other's throats and yet will have almost no effect.

First, let's start with that nefarious "gun show loophole" we've all heard so much about, which will be closed. But what is the gun show loophole anyway? I've always pictured arms dealers setting up at shows and selling assault weapons to hoodlums because they know they can sell at a gun show without background checks. Sounds bad–and it could not be more off base. The editors of National Review explain what closing the loophole will mean:

The so-called gun-show loophole, which doesn’t actually exist, refers to the fact that people who are not professionally engaged in the business of selling firearms are not obliged to become licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) if, say, they sell an old shotgun at a garage sale, or sell a brother-in-law an old deer rifle for $50.

Similarly, if you hang a “For Sale” sign in the window of your 1983 Honda Prelude, you need not become a licensed automobile dealer. This purported loophole covers sales made anywhere, not only at gun shows or online. It isn’t clear that this would have any impact on criminals’ acquisitions of guns — unlicensed sales at gun shows are not a large source of firearms used in crimes — and, at any rate, the president is here a bit behind the times: Many gun shows keep FFL-holders on site to perform background checks, and online gun shops, which are licensed dealers, ship exclusively to other FFLs in order to secure legal transfer.

Many casual sellers do the same thing, because they have strong incentives to secure legal transfer of the firearms they sell.

The NR editors propose actions that could actually reduce the odds of guns getting into the hands of the wrong people. Since the president appoints all U.S. attorneys, they propose, If he wanted to he could appoint U.S. attorneys who would go after straw buyers. Why not do this? The editors reply:

But actually prosecuting straw buyers, as opposed to hassling legal firearms dealers, is a great deal of work and usually results in putting some hoodlum’s nephew or girlfriend in prison.

A key part of the president's program is expanding the definition of firearms dealers. This will affect only people who obey the law and not straw buyers who get guns into the hands of criminals.  Nicholas Johnson points out:

Unnoticed is that this action, taken under the banner of “common sense” gun control to make Americans safer, reverses a Clinton administration gun-control policy that also was supposed to make us safer.

Before Clinton, the 1968 Gun Control Act stipulated that everyone who sells a gun must get a license to do so. Hobbyists were often targeted. A gun collector who sold three guns over two years has his collection seized and was prosecuted. Under the then-prevailing definition of a gun dealer, there were said to be too many gun dealers in the U.S. The Clinton administration responded:

As a plum to gun-control groups, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms under Bill Clinton responded in 1994. The ATF changed the requirements for who could obtain a federal license for the retail sale of firearms (by, for instance, mandating actual storefront operations). The antigun Violence Policy Center celebrated the results in a 2007 policy paper that said the number of licensed dealers “has dropped 79 percent—from 245,628 in 1994 to 50,630.”

Ironically, President Obama's gun control actions reverse this:

Now President Obama proposes moving the furniture around again. The ATF’s new guidance on the matter says that storefronts are irrelevant: “it does not matter if sales are conducted out of your home, at gun shows, flea markets, through the internet, or by other means.” The agency also emphasizes that “courts have upheld convictions for dealing without a license when as few as two firearms were sold.”

We’re coming full circle, back around to the policies of 1972. Prudent hobbyists and collectors, fearing that they might face prosecution under the new, broader definition of a gun dealer, will apply for federal firearms licenses. The impact on gun crime, which is already dramatically down since the 1970s, will be negligible.

Like the editors of National Review, Johnson charges that President Obama avoids the hard issues of gun control:

The important policy issues are never even discussed because they are so hard and do not yield easy answers: What about the hundreds of thousands of guns that are stolen in the U.S. every year, which pile up in the black market? What about shared-access guns, where a family has firearms stored in a mutually accessible place? (The shooter in Newtown, Conn., used his mother’s guns.) What can government actually do to protect people in those crucial first seconds when violence sparks?

Measured against those sorts of tough questions, the president’s recycled proposals are a glittery distraction. The truly unfortunate thing is that Americans are at each other’s throats over this sort of marginalia. It leaves those who know better to wonder whether the politicians who make such a show of things are deluded, desperate or simply pandering.

This is enough to make us all cry.