WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s do-it-himself plan for keeping guns away from those who shouldn’t have them falls far short of what he’d hoped to accomplish through legislation after a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School shook the country to attention in 2012.
Yet even the more modest steps Obama announced Tuesday rely on murky interpretations of existing law that could be easily reversed by his successor.
At the centerpiece of Obama’s plan, unveiled at a White House event with gun violence victims, is a more sweeping definition of gun dealers that the administration hopes will expand the number of gun sales subject to background checks. At gun shows, websites and flea markets, sellers often skirt that requirement by declining to register as licensed dealers, but officials said new federal guidance would clarify that it applies to anyone “in the business” of selling firearms.
They put sellers on notice that the government planned to strengthen enforcement — including deploying 230 new examiners the FBI will hire to process background checks.
“This is not going to solve every violent crime in this country,” Obama said. Yet he said the steps would “potentially save lives and spare families the pain of these extraordinary losses.”
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.
The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage, but they can't hold America hostage. We can't accept this carnage in our communities.
— President Obama (@POTUS44) January 4, 2016
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.
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) January 5, 2016
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.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other top officials declined to explain why Obama hadn’t taken these steps years ago and whether the administration had contemplated these actions in the past but determined Obama didn’t have the authority.
“We’re very comfortable that the president can legally take these actions now,” said Lynch.
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.
Under current law, only federally licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks on buyers, but many who sell guns at flea markets, on websites or in other informal settings don’t register as dealers. Gun control advocates say that loophole is exploited to skirt the background check requirement.
Now, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will issue 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 background check provision rests in the murky realm of agency “guidelines,” which carry less weight than formally issued federal regulations and can easily be rescinded. Lynch said the administration chose to clarify guidelines because it allowed the policies to be implemented immediately. Left unsaid was the fact that developing regulations would have dragged out likely until Obama’s presidency ends and would have generated more opportunities for Republicans to intervene.
Hillary Clinton, at a rally in Iowa, said she was proud of Obama’s efforts, but warned that the next president could easily undo his changes.
“I won’t wipe it away,” Clinton said.
Republicans were quick to accuse Obama of gross overreach. Many of the Republican presidential candidates have vowed to rip up new Obama gun restrictions upon taking office, and some lawmakers are contemplating withholding Justice Department funds if it tries to implement them.
“Obama’s declaration that he will impose his gun control agenda by executive order shows an utter disregard for the Second Amendment as well as the proper constitutional process for making laws in our nation,” GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Gazette.
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.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Ken Thomas in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
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