President Obama will announce Tuesday that he’ll act on his own authority to expand background checks for would-be gun buyers and increase enforcement of existing laws, a culmination of his effort to curb gun violence that nonetheless falls short of sweeping change he had long sought.
Though Obama is going around Congress yet again to act on a policy priority, as he did on immigration and climate, he is limited in what he can legally do without proposing legislative change. His executive actions neither close the so-called gun-show loophole nor require universal background checks, two possibilities he had directed aides to explore amid a spate of mass shootings in the fall.
Obama plans to clarify federal law that allows for private gun sales without background checks on buyers, senior advisors said. Anyone who makes a living from selling guns online or at gun shows, two places where sellers are considered collectors or hobbyists making private sales, will no longer be freed from the requirement to conduct such checks.
Under a new reading of federal rules, a person can be considered a dealer “engaged in the business of dealing in firearms” even if they make only a few sales.
“We have to be very clear that this is not going to solve every violent crime in this country. It’s not going to prevent every mass shooting,” Obama acknowledged to reporters in the Oval Office on Monday.
But, he said, “it will potentially save lives and spare families the pain and extraordinary loss.”
Most of Obama’s new initiative will be implemented through the president’s executive authority to direct changes in his agencies. The new guidelines governing private sales, for example, are a clarification of existing practices at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as the White House sees it.
Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch told reporters that her agency will put sellers on notice of the clarification and warn them that the real definition of private sales is narrow.
The new guidance is consistent with existing law because it clarifies its original intent, said Lynch and White House officials. The hobbyist exemption in federal law was never meant to cover people regularly devoting significant time and effort to selling firearms just because they were doing so at a gun show, she said.
Sellers will no longer be able to claim collector status by saying, “'I only have a booth at a flea market,’” Lynch said. “That’s not the standard.”
Curbing gun violence has long been a priority for Obama. He has called the day of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre in 2012 the worst of his presidency, and after the October mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Ore., that killed 10, he lamented that “somehow this has become routine.”
After the Roseburg shooting, he ordered his administration to again search for ways to limit the flow of guns into the hands of mass killers, and this week's actions appear to be the fruit of that assignment.
Obama said he believes his new initiatives are supported by the “overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners.”
Obama’s anticipated rules or regulation change inspired a furious response even before its announcement. Several Republican presidential candidates decried his plans. On Sunday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Obama a “petulant child” who’s acting “as if he’s a king, as if he’s a dictator.”
And House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Monday that the president is “at a minimum subverting the legislative branch and potentially overturning its will” by acting unilaterally.
The Senate in 2013 rejected Obama’s legislative proposals to overhaul gun laws, including provisions designed to run background checks on potential buyers in every gun sale.
“No president should be able to reverse legislative failure by executive fiat, not even incrementally,” Ryan said. “This is a dangerous level of executive overreach, and the country will not stand for it.”
Obama began detailing his plans in a meeting with Democratic lawmakers Monday.
“We’re really happy that the president is really thoughtfully taking some action,” Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) said after the meeting.
“At the same time, I think everyone is realistic that really dealing with the issue, including on background checks, is going to take congressional action.”
After Obama’s address Tuesday comes the administration’s push to explain its rules clarification to gun sellers and others.
During a six-month education campaign, Justice Department officials will visit flea markets and gun shows and contact sellers via the Internet, letting them know of criminal penalties for failing to register. Dodging the licensure rule can carry five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The ATF will assess each case individually, said Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama advisor involved in drafting the policy. She said agents will consider such qualifications as whether sellers represent themselves as dealers by taking credit card payments, handing out business cards, selling firearms quickly after acquiring them or selling them in the original packaging.
Lynch said it is impossible to predict how many additional dealers might have to register because of a major shift in the industry from selling guns in stores to selling them online.
Lynch also sent a letter to state officials emphasizing the importance of getting complete criminal history records to bolster the database for background checks.
And the FBI is overhauling the background check system to make it more effective and efficient, with a new standard of trying to do background checks 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Under its rule-making authority, the administration is also finalizing a requirement of background checks for anyone trying to buy certain firearms through a trust or corporation.
The ATF is also finalizing a rule requiring dealers who ship firearms to notify law enforcement officials if their guns get lost or are stolen while in transit to a buyer.
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