President Barack Obama will press ahead with a set of executive actions on guns next week despite growing concerns in the United States over terrorism that have dampened some Americans’ enthusiasm for tighter firearms restrictions.
The president will meet with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Monday to finalize a series of new gun-control measures and will announce his package of proposals soon after that, according to several individuals who asked for anonymity because the plan is not yet public.
One of the main proposals Obama is poised to adopt would require some unlicensed gun dealers to get licenses and conduct background checks on potential buyers. The change is aimed at informal dealers such as those who are selling online frequently or renting tables at gun shows but do not have a storefront.
Obama began examining how he could tighten the nation’s gun rules after October’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. Administration lawyers have spent months reviewing various proposals to make sure they can withstand legal challenges.
The idea of requiring informal gun dealers to obtain a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and of conducting background checks came up two years ago when White House officials drafted a proposal for dealers who sell at least 50 guns annually. But the idea was shelved over legal concerns and did not gain new momentum until after the Roseburg shooting. At that point, Hillary Clinton said she would pursue such a requirement by executive action if elected president. Shortly afterward, White House officials began giving the idea greater scrutiny.
The White House review has been conducted in relative secrecy, soliciting input from gun safety groups without specifying which policies the administration might ultimately adopt. In the past month, Obama has met with former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was badly injured in a 2011 mass shooting, and her husband, Mark Kelly, as well with with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which Bloomberg helped start.
In Obama’s weekly radio address Friday, delivered a day earlier than usual, the president said he was moving unilaterally because Congress had failed to address the growing problem of gun violence.
“A few months ago, I directed my team at the White House to look into any new actions I can take to help reduce gun violence,” he said. “And on Monday, I’ll meet with our Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, to discuss our options.”
“Because I get too many letters from parents, and teachers, and kids, to sit around and do nothing,” Obama continued. “I get letters from responsible gun owners who grieve with us every time these tragedies happen; who share my belief that the Second Amendment guarantees a right to bear arms; and who share my belief we can protect that right while keeping an irresponsible, dangerous few from inflicting harm on a massive scale.”
The administration, in reviewing its options, has shut out congressional Republicans, who joined with some Democrats in helping block legislation to expand background checks after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“The administration has not communicated with us, and we have not been briefed,” said Doug Andres, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, in an email. “We will consider options once we have information, but what seems apparent is none of these ideas would have prevented the recent atrocities. Our focus should be on the consistent causes of these acts – mental illnesses and terrorism – rather than infringing on law-abiding Americans’ constitutional rights.”
The Republican presidential candidates were notably silent about Obama’s announcement.
The president plans to make his case for additional gun restrictions in a number of forums in the coming month, according to aides, including during his Jan. 12 State of the Union address.
While beefing up background checks has strong support — a Quinnipiac University poll in December found that 89 percent of Americans supported checks for purchases at gun shows and for online sales — Obama’s actions also come as Americans have become more fearful about the prospect of terrorist strikes and are expressing an openness to having ordinary citizens carry guns.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted last month in the wake of the San Bernardino, Calif. terrorist shooting, for example, found that 53 percent of respondents opposed an assault weapons ban, a record high. When asked which is the better reaction to terrorism, 47 percent said encouraging more people to carry guns legally, while 42 percent preferred enacting stricter gun-control laws.
Federal law requires those who are “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms to have a federal license — and, therefore, to conduct background checks of potential buyers. But it exempts anyone “who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.”
It is unclear how many possible deals a change in the rule would affect, since these activities are not formally tracked. Also, the guns purchased for several recent mass shootings — in both Roseburg and San Bernardino — were done legally, and their buyers were subject to background checks.
Everytown spokeswoman Erika Soto Lamb said the current interpretation of what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms is “a hazy definition that allows high-volume sellers to transfer thousands of guns without background checks, no questions asked.”
The administration has also been weighing other proposals including requiring federally licensed gun dealers to report any lost and stolen guns to the National Crime Information Center; publishing aggregate background check denial data for guns sold by unlicensed sellers; clarifying that convicted abusers are prohibited from having guns regardless of their marital status, and instructing federal law enforcement to identify and arrest criminals who attempt to buy illegal guns.
Any action by the president is sure to trigger a major backlash from gun-rights activists and Republican officeholders nationwide. Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman the National Rifle Association’s Institute, said in an email that the president “is doing what he always does when he doesn’t get his way, which is defy the will of the people and issue an executive order.”
“This is nothing more than a political stunt to appease anti-gun billionaire Michael Bloomberg and will do nothing to increase public safety,” she said, adding that a dozen high-profile mass shooters in the U.S. passed background checks, including Jared Loughner, who shot Giffords and 19 others in Tucson, Arizona; Dylann Roof in Charleston, S.C; and James Holmes in Aurora, Colo.
Even as Obama made his radio pitch, a Texas law letting licensed handgun owners to carry their weapons openly in public took effect.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, mocked the president’s latest push in a tweet, writing, “Obama wants to impose more gun control. My response? COME & TAKE IT.”
But groups such as MoveOn.org have begun to mobilize firearm owners to support expanded background checks and other measures aimed at curbing gun violence.
David Mark Williams, a farmer in Halfway, Ore., described guns as “a tool. If you’re hunting or living a rural lifestyle, you’re going to have a firearm.”
But Williams, who came to Washington this fall with MoveOn.org to meet with members of both parties, said he resigned his NRA membership after its president opposed stricter gun laws in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook killings.
“I’m also a supporter of rational reasonable gun control measures,” he said.
Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said in an email Friday that “while public opinion on completely banning particular types guns is more mixed,” there’s no question that an overwhelming majority of Americans “favor proposals, like universal background checks, that are aimed at keeping guns out of the wrong hands. And, notably such measures have been the primary focus of the administration’s legislative and executive action efforts.”