WASHINGTON—Gearing up for a certain confrontation with Congress, President Barack Obama defended his plans to tighten the nation’s gun-control restrictions on his own, insisting Monday, Jan. 4, that the steps he’ll announce fall within his legal authority and uphold the constitutional right to own a gun.
Opening his final year in office on an aggressive note, Obama summoned his attorney general and FBI chief to the Oval Office to firm up a set of measures he said he’d announce over the next few days. Although the details are still uncertain, Obama’s administration has been preparing behind the scenes to expand background checks on gun sales by forcing more sellers to register as dealers.
“This is not going to solve every violent crime in this country,” Obama said, tempering expectations for gun control advocates calling for far-reaching executive action. “It’s not going to prevent every mass shooting; it’s not going to keep every gun out of the hands of a criminal. It will potentially save lives and spare families the pain of these extraordinary losses.”
More than three years after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, with many other mass shootings since, Obama is training his attention once again on a policy goal that has eluded his administration. He tried the legislative route in 2013, pushing hard for a package that included expanded background checks. But that effort collapsed spectacularly in Congress. Obama and his aides have described their inability to move the issue forward as one of the most frustrating failures in his presidency.
This time, with barely a year left in office and his political currency dwindling, Obama is eschewing Congress in favor of presidential action. Any proposal for new gun laws would be a non-starter in the Republican-controlled Congress—especially in a presidential election year.
Obama’s steps were certain to draw intense opposition in Congress, and indeed, lawmakers and Obama’s political opponents had already started pre-emptively panning Obama’s plan. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he wasn’t sure exactly what Obama would announce, but dismissed it as an attempt to divide the country and distract from Obama’s “failed policies” to address terrorism.
“The president is at minimum subverting the legislative branch, and potentially overturning its will,” said Ryan (R-Wis.).
The changes to the background check would be aimed at some unregistered sellers who skirt the requirement by selling at gun shows, online or informal settings. Under current law, only federally licensed firearms dealers are required to seek background checks. The administration is expected to require more people to register as dealers by altering the criteria, such as the number and frequency of guns sold, whether sellers profit off sales, whether they advertise, rent space or tables at gun shows and pay taxes.
Other moves being considered include improving reporting of lost and stolen weapons and beefing up inspections of licensed dealers, according to people familiar with the plans who weren’t authorized to disclose details before the announcement.
Yet from the campaign trail to the halls of Congress, critics were already taking the president to task, both for the expected content of the actions and for the manner in which he’s taking them. Republicans and gun rights advocates pledged to derail them by challenging Obama’s authority to create impediments on gun ownership on his own.
Mindful of inevitable challenges, the White House carefully crafted the steps to bolster their prospects of surviving in court, and Obama said he was acting “well within my legal authority.”
“I’m also confident that the recommendations that are being made by our team here are ones that are entirely consistent with the Second Amendment and people’s lawful right to bear arms,” Obama said.
Aiming to set the stage for a productive final year in office, Obama planned to spend the week promoting the gun effort and pushing back on its critics. He met at the White House on Monday with Democratic lawmakers who have supported stricter gun control, and planned to take his argument to prime time on Thursday with a town hall discussion about gun violence on CNN.
The initiative also promised to be prominent in Obama’s final State of the Union address next Tuesday, scheduled earlier than usual this year.
Already, the issue has become a hot topic in the presidential campaign, ensuring that whatever steps Obama takes will be heavily politicized by both sides.
Democrat Hillary Clinton, who has already proposed closing the gun show loophole, cheered Obama’s plans, and her chief primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, called it the “right thing to do.” But on the GOP side, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Obama a “petulant child” peddling illegal executive actions, while Donald Trump said he saw no need for changes.
It’s not clear how large an effect the president’s action would have on keeping guns from violent criminals. Philip Cook, a Duke University professor who researches gun violence and policy, said gun shows are at least occasionally a source of weapons for traffickers, but that surveys of prisoners don’t show them to be a major source.
But Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, predicted a “dramatic impact” from the steps.