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Obama to sidestep Congress, take executive action on gun sales

President to redefine what it means to be a gun dealer and mandate increased use of background checks

President Barack Obama said on Monday his new executive actions to tighten gun rules were “well within” his legal authority and consistent with the U.S. right to bear arms, a warning to opponents who are likely to challenge them in court.

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Obama said his administration would unveil the new measures on Tuesday.

Obama is igniting a political firestorm by bypassing Congress with the measures, which are likely to redefine what it means to be a gun dealer and spark increased use of background checks. Republicans say Obama is misusing his powers.

“The good news is … these are not only recommendations that are well within my legal authority and the executive branch, but they're also ones that the overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners, support,” Obama said during a meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other advisers.

Shares in gun makers Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. and Sturm Ruger & Co. Inc. rose against a falling stock market on Monday in anticipation of increased gun sales, as has happened before when the White House mulled weapon sales reform.

Stymied by Congress' inaction on gun control, the president asked his advisers in recent months to examine new ways he could use his executive authority to tighten gun rules unilaterally without needing congressional approval after multiple mass shootings generated outrage nationwide.

One option was a regulatory change to require more dealers to get a license to sell guns, a move that would trigger more background checks on buyers.

The White House had drafted a proposal on that issue previously but was concerned it could be challenged in court and would be hard to enforce.

Guns are a potent issue in U.S. politics. The right to bear arms is protected by the U.S. Constitution, and the National Rifle Association (NRA), the top U.S. gun rights group, is feared and respected in Washington for its ability to mobilize gun owners. Congress has not approved major gun-control legislation since the 1990s.

Obama said he was confident his new measures were constitutionally sound and would save lives.

“This is not going to solve every violent crime in this country,” Obama said. Still, he added, “It will potentially save lives and spare families the pain of these extraordinary losses.”

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 and how frequently, and whether those guns are sold for a profit.

Obama's executive actions on gun control will fall short of what some gun control advocates have called for, but are nevertheless sure to spark a confrontation with Republicans and gun rights groups that oppose new impediments to buying guns.

Obama's announcement was hailed by gun control advocates and Democratic lawmakers, who praised the president for refusing to cow to the National Rifle Association and similar groups. Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said Obama was making history with “bold and meaningful action” that would make all Americans safer.

Congress, which is controlled by Republicans, rejected Obama's proposals for legislation to tighten gun rules in 2013.

“While we don’t yet know the details of the plan, the president is at minimum subverting the legislative branch, and potentially overturning its will,” Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan said in a statement.

“This is a dangerous level of executive overreach, and the country will not stand for it.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., however, welcomed news of the president's executive actions.

“The repeated obstruction in Congress of commonsense measures that seem reasonable to almost all Americans has led to the President’s strong and necessary action on gun safety,” Schumer said. “The vast majority of Americans will welcome Presidential action to break the unnatural vice grip that the NRA has over safety in America.”

U.S. states have taken their own approaches to addressing gun violence. Texas legalized openly carrying handguns, while New York and Connecticut have banned high-capacity magazines.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of individual Americans to keep and bear arms. But the court also recognized that laws imposing conditions on commercial guns sale could be consistent with the Second Amendment.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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