Obama accused the gun lobby of taking Congress hostage, but said: “they cannot hold America hostage.” He insisted it was possible to uphold the Second Amendment while doing something to tackle the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. that he said had become “the new normal.”
“This is not a plot to take away everybody's guns,” Obama said in a ceremony in the East Room. “You pass a background check, you purchase a firearm. The problem is some gun sellers have been operating under a different set of rules.”
But the National Rifle Association (NRA) responded to the president's comments by tweeting: “President Obama's executive orders will do nothing to improve public safety.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan says no matter what unilateral action President Barack Obama takes on gun control, “his word does not trump the Second Amendment.”
At the centerpiece of Obama's plan is a broader definition of gun dealers that the administration hopes will expand the number of gun sales subject to background checks.
At firearm 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 beef up enforcement —including with 230 new examiners the FBI will hire to process background checks.
The impact of Obama's plan on gun violence remains a major question, and one not easily answered. Had the rules been in place in the past, the steps wouldn't likely have prevented any of the recent mass shootings that have garnered national attention. The Obama administration acknowledged it couldn't quantify how many gun sales would be newly subjected to background checks, nor how many currently unregistered gun sellers would have to obtain a license.
Pushing back on that critique, Obama said every time the issue is debated, gun rights groups argue the steps wouldn't necessarily have stopped the last massacre, “so why bother trying?”
More recent gun-related atrocities, including in San Bernardino, California, 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.
“Instead of thinking about how to solve the problem, this has become one of our more polarizing, partisan debates,” Obama said, adding that the nation should come together “not to debate the last mass shooting, but to try to prevent the next one.”
The measures, however, fall far short of what Obama had hoped to accomplish through legislation after a massacre at a Connecticut elementary school shook the country in 2012. Yet even the more modest steps the president will announce rely on murky interpretations of existing law that could be easily reversed by his successor.
Obama's actions ensure that gun rights — one of the most bitterly divisive issues in America — will be at the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign, which begins in earnest next month with the first primary contests.