A visibly emotional President Barack Obama, at one point wiping tears from his cheek, unveiled his plan Tuesday to tighten control and enforcement of firearms in the U.S., using his presidential powers in the absence of legal changes he implored Congress to pass.
Obama accused the gun lobby of taking Congress hostage, but said “they cannot hold America hostage.” He insisted it was possible to uphold the Second Amendment while doing something to tackle the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. that he said had become “the new normal.”
“This is not a plot to take away everybody’s guns,” Obama said in a ceremony in the East Room. “You pass a background check, you purchase a firearm. The problem is some gun sellers have been operating under a different set of rules.”
Obama wiped tears away as he recalled the 20 first-graders killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He paid tribute to the parents, some of whom gathered for the ceremony, who he said had never imagined their child’s life would be cut short by a bullet.
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Obama said.
At the centerpiece of Obama’s plan is a more sweeping definition of gun dealers that the administration hopes will expand the number of sales subject to background checks. Under current law, only federally licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks on buyers. But at gun shows, websites and flea markets, sellers often skirt that requirement by declining to register as licensed dealers.
Aiming to narrow that loophole, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is issuing updated guidance that says the government should deem anyone “in the business” of selling guns to be a dealer, regardless of where he or she sells the guns. To that end, the government will consider other factors, including how many guns a person sells, how frequently, and whether those guns are sold for a profit.
The White House also put sellers on notice that the administration planned to strengthen enforcement – including deploying 230 new examiners the FBI will hire to process background checks.
The impact of Obama’s plan on gun violence remains a major question, and one not easily answered. Had the rules been in place in the past, the steps wouldn’t likely have prevented any of the recent mass shootings that have garnered national attention. The Obama administration acknowledged it couldn’t quantify how many gun sales would be newly subjected to background checks, nor how many currently unregistered gun sellers would have to obtain a license.
Pushing back on that critique, Obama said every time the issue is debated, gun rights groups argue the steps wouldn’t necessarily have stopped the last massacre, “so why bother trying?”
“I reject that thinking,” Obama said, arguing it would be worth it if the measures would prevent even a single gun death. “We maybe can’t save everybody, but we could save some.”
To lend a personal face to the issue, the White House assembled a cross-section of Americans whose lives were altered by the nation’s most searing recent gun tragedies, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and relatives of victims from Charleston, S.C., at Virginia Tech. Mark Barden, whose son was shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School, introduced the president with a declaration that “we are better than this.”
Invoking the words of Martin Luther King Jr., Obama said, “We need to feel the fierce urgency of now.”
Obama’s package of executive actions aims to curb what he’s described as a scourge of gun violence in the U.S., punctuated by appalling mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Charleston, South Carolina; and Tucson, Arizona, among many others. After Newtown, Obama sought far-reaching, bipartisan legislation that went beyond background checks.
When the effort collapsed in the Senate, the White House said it was thoroughly researching the president’s powers to identify every legal step he could take on his own. But a more recent spate of gun-related atrocities, including in San Bernardino, California, shootings have spurred the administration to give the issue another look, as Obama seeks to make good on a policy issue that he’s elevated time and again but has failed until now to advance.
At the centerpiece of Obama’s plan is a more sweeping definition of gun dealers that the administration hopes will expand the number of sales subject to background checks. Under current law, only federally licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks on buyers. But at gun shows, websites and flea markets, sellers often skirt that requirement by declining to register as licensed dealers. So new federal guidance from the Obama administration clarified that it applies to anyone “in the business” of selling firearms.
Meanwhile, new federal data show 2015 was a record-smashing year for the American firearms industry, with gun sales appearing to hit the highest level on record.
Background checks for gun purchases and permits jumped 10 percent last year to 23.1 million, the largest number since the federal background check system began operating in 1998.
Black Friday 2015 was the single biggest gun-buying day ever, with more than 185,000 checks processed, according to background check figures from the FBI. December saw the highest number of background checks processed in any month.
The last five weeks of the year all ranked among the 10 biggest weeks ever for firearm background checks.
After formally announcing the package Tuesday, Obama planned to continue the weeklong push to promote the gun effort with a prime time, televised town hall discussion Thursday. The initiative also promised to be prominent in Obama’s final State of the Union address next week.
Republicans were quick to accuse Obama of gross overreach.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said that no matter what unilateral action President Barack Obama takes on gun control, “his word does not trump the Second Amendment.”
The Wisconsin Republican says in a statement that the president’s steps to expand background checks to cover more firearms are certain to be challenged in the courts. Ryan also is stressing that whatever the president does can be overturned if a Republican is elected president in November.
Ryan said Obama has never respected the right to safe and legal gun ownership that the country has valued since its inception.
He says Obama “knows full well that the law already says that people who make their living selling firearms must be licensed, regardless of venue. Still, rather than focus on criminals and terrorists, he goes after the most law-abiding of citizens.”
Ryan said Obama’s words and actions “amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty.”
The new guidance still exempts collectors and gun hobbyists, and the exact definition of who must register as a dealer and conduct background checks remains exceedingly vague. The administration did not issue a number for how many guns someone must sell to be considered a dealer, instead saying it planned to remind people that courts have deemed people to be dealers in some cases even if they only sell one or two guns.
The White House said it planned to ask Congress for $500 million to improve mental health care. Obama also issued a memorandum directing federal agencies to conduct or sponsor research into smart gun technology that reduces the risk of accidental gun discharges.