White House officials declined to comment on Obama’s plans beyond releasing his weekly radio address on Friday, a day earlier than usual. But according to those familiar with the proposal, who asked for anonymity because it was not yet public, the president will expand new background-check requirements for buyers who purchase weapons from high-volume gun dealers.
The president will also use his executive authority in several other areas, these individuals said, but the overall package has not yet been finalized.
In the radio address, Obama 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 in the recorded address. “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.”
Obama began examining how he could tighten the nation’s gun rules after October’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., but administration lawyers have spent months reviewing any proposals to ensure they can withstand legal scrutiny. The idea of requiring informal gun dealers to obtain a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and perform background checks on potential buyers first came up two years ago, but was shelved over legal concerns.
The current federal statute dictates that those who are “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms need to obtain a federal license — and, therefore, conduct background checks — but 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 any 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, Calif.–were done legally, and subject to background checks.
Gun control advocates — including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was gravely injured in a 2011 mass shooting, and former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — have met personally with Obama over the past month to push for the background checks expansion and other measures.
Everytown spokeswoman Erika Soto Lamb, whose group was founded with Bloomberg’s support, 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.”
Other proposals the administration has been weighing include 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 lawmakers who have blocked legislative action in the past. On Thursday, the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action launched the first in a video series attacking gun control advocates.
The first ad targets Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who revived the plan to expand background checks in the wake of the Roseburg shooting by proposing it on the campaign trail. The ad is labeled “New Year’s Resolutions of the Rich and Anti-Gun (Actually, Just Hillary Clinton),” and it shows a woman outlining her plans on Clinton’s campaign stationary beside a photo of the president and his former Secretary of State as “Auld Lang Syne” blares in the background.
“Stop trying to ban guns,” she writes as her first point, in black marker, followed by, “Read the Constitution.”
“Meet an actual gun owner,” the Clinton impersonator scribbles, before adding, “In Person!”
At that point the woman crosses out all three points, crumples up the paper and throws it aside, as Clinton’s laugh is heard in the background.
Groups such as MoveOn.org, however, 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 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“I’m also a supporter of rational reasonable gun control measures,” he said.
Advocates from groups such as the Metro Industrial Areas Association said the president is not doing enough to curb the nearly 90 gun-related deaths that take place each day in the U.S., by not coming to the aid of gun manufacturers who are being sued for negligence; providing additional funding for the development of “smart gun” technology; and failing to use the federal government’s purchasing power to pressure gun manufacturers to take more responsibility for reducing gun violence.
But Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said in an email Thursday it was “extremely encouraging that the president appears poised” to enhance the enforcement of existing gun laws given congressional resistance to such measures.
“Along with progress in state legislatures and actions taken by governors and attorneys general, the steps the White House is considering would make it somewhat less likely that guns will end up in the wrong hands,” Gerney said. “And, with gunfire claiming the lives of 33,000 American a year, even incremental steps can have life-saving impact.”