Politics

President Obama announces executive action addressing gun violence

US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference at the White House on October 2, 2015, in Washington, DC.
US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference at the White House on October 2, 2015, in Washington, DC.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Executive steps breakdown

Expanded background checks 

The president's actions will make clear that anyone who's in the business of selling guns must obtain a license, regardless of whether they sell firearms online or at gun shows, and must conduct background checks on their customers. Currently, only federally licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks on buyers.

The White House says there's no threshold number of sales that will trigger the licensure requirement, and that even a few transactions may be enough to establish that a person is engaged in the business of selling guns.

The federal government is also finalizing a rule to require background checks for those who try to buy sawed-off shotguns, machine guns and similar weapons through a trust, corporation or other legal entity.

More FBI examiners 

The FBI will hire more than an additional 230 examiners and other staff to help process background checks. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2015 received more than 22.2 million background check requests, or an average of more than 63,000 per day.

The FBI is also working to modernize NICS, which dates to the 1990s, and to improve the response time for alerting local law enforcement authorities that someone who is disqualified from buying a gun attempted to do so.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has written to states emphasizing the need to submit complete criminal history records so that the background check system has as much information at its disposal as possible.

Lost and stolen weapons

A rule issued by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will clarify that a dealer shipping a gun is responsible for notifying law enforcement once it determines it was lost or stolen in transit. The rule is aimed at clarifying regulations on lost or stolen weapons that the White House says are ambiguous about who precisely bears that responsibility.

Smart gun technology

A presidential memorandum to the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice directs the agencies to conduct or sponsor research into smart gun technology. That technology is aimed at reducing the risk of accidental gun discharges and improving the tracing of lost or stolen firearms.

The memorandum also instructs the agencies to regularly review the availability of smart gun technology and to promote its use.

Mental health

The White House is proposing a $500 million investment to improve mental health care.

This post has been updated.