Contrary to what you may have heard today — from Bloomberg News, Huffington Post, Salon, and a million other places — President Obama did not sign 23 executive orders at his gun-control event this afternoon. What he did was initiate 23 "executive actions." An executive action is a vague term that can refer to anything done by the executive (the president). Some of the items on the White House's list of 23 "executive actions" — such as "Launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health" and "Nominate an ATF director" — are more like personal priorities.
President Obama, in fact, didn't actually sign any executive orders today. He did issue three "presidential memoranda," which, respectively:
- direct federal law enforcement to trace all guns taken in federal custody in the course of a criminal investigation
- direct the Department of Justice to ensure that all applicable information from federal agencies is made available for background checks
- and direct the Department of Health to "conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it."
So what's the difference between a "presidential memorandum" and an executive order? Not much! According to a 1999 Congressional Research Service report, they're executive orders in all but name:
Another executive tool which has raised many questions is the presidential memoranda. Although they possess a different title than executive orders, it appears as though these instruments are very much alike. Both are undefined, written instruments by which the president directs, and governs actions by, Government officials and agencies. They differ in that executive orders must be published in the Federal Register whereas presidential memoranda are similarly published only if the President determines that they have a "general applicability and legal effect." .... In at least one instance, a federal district court seemed to use the two terms interchangeably.
Basically, for all intents and purposes, a memorandum is an executive order. However, since executive orders are a particularly controversial and politically charged lever of presidential power (the mere mention of them has inspired talk of impeachment among some of Congress's more firebrand Republicans), it's important to note that they (or something exactly like them) comprised only three of the items on Obama's list of 23 "executive actions."
Ultimately, though, what matters is the nature of the proposal itself, not whether it will be carried out via an "executive action" or an executive order or a presidential memo. And despite the collective conservative freak-out, one could hardly argue that Obama's slate of executive actions — most of which nobody would even have noticed if they weren't announced — infringe on the ability of law-abiding gun owners to continue exercising their Second Amendment rights. Or maybe one could.