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Obama announces gun plan, says firearm lobby ‘can't hold America hostage’

In tears, president outlines measures to be implemented through executive action to tighten gun controls

President Barack Obama was reduced to tears Tuesday as he recalled the lives of children killed by gun violence in America, and resolved to keep firearms away from those who shouldn’t have them through executive action that would bypass an Republican-led Congress that had proved intransigent on the issue.

With tears running down his cheeks, Obama said that every time he thinks of the first-graders murdered in a mass shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, it gets him mad. “By the way, it happens in the streets of Chicago every day,” he added in reference to the daily toll of gun violence in cities across America.

In an emotional address that follows a spate of deadly mass shootings, the president unveiled array of measures aimed at tightening gun controls that he intends to force through using his presidential powers in lieu of political willingness in Congress to pass any such laws.

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.

Accusing Obama of gross overreach, many of the Republican presidential candidates have vowed to rip up the new gun restrictions upon taking office. Even before the president's speech on Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush released a video ad, stating he was a “strong supporter of the Second Amendment.” 

“I will fight as hard as I can against any effort by this president or by any liberal that wants to take away people’s rights that are embedded in the Bill of Rights, embedded in the constitution,” Bush said in the ad. 

But Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton said she was proud of Obama's efforts and promised she would safeguard them. A spate of appalling mass shootings has inflamed passions in the U.S. over the subject of guns.

After 20 children and six educators were killed in Sandy Hook Elementary school three years ago, Obama sought far-reaching, bipartisan gun legislation. 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.

Public opinion polls show Americans overwhelmingly support expanding background checks for gun purchases, but are more divided on the broader question of stricter gun laws.

About a third of Americans live in a household where at least one person owns a gun. Particularly in rural areas where firearms are a way of life, many citizens do not believe gun laws should be made stricter. The reverse is true in urban areas, where majorities want tighter firearm regulations.

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.

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 generate more opportunities for Republicans to intervene. 

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press 

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