Setting up a clash with Congress and gun rights groups in his final year in office, President Obama announced Monday that he was issuing regulations to require more background checks on gun purchases while proposing to hire hundreds more federal agents to enforce existing guns laws.
The administrative steps will include a crackdown on gun dealers who bill themselves as “collectors” or “personal sellers” but are actually engaged in the business of firearms sales, including transactions online, said Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will require more of these dealers to obtain federal licenses, at the agency’s discretion, necessitating background checks on their sales.
The administration also will propose $500 million for expanded access to mental health services and, in a move that could raise privacy concerns, will seek to include’ mental health information on background checks for gun purchases.
Mr. Obama, who will formally announce the steps Tuesday at the White House, said his executive actions “will potentially save lives” without infringing on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners.
The president said the gun measures won’t prevent every mass shooting but will “spare families the pain and the extraordinary loss that they’ve suffered as a consequence of a firearm getting in the hands of the wrong people.”
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“The good news is that these are not only recommendations that are well within my legal authority in the executive branch, but they’re also ones that the overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners, support and believe in,” Mr. Obama told reporters after receiving recommendations from Ms. Lynch, FBI Director James B. Comey and ATF Deputy Director Thomas Brandon.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Congress has already spoken on the issue of gun control by rejecting a proposal in 2013 to expand background checks for gun purchases.
“The president is at minimum subverting the legislative branch, and potentially overturning its will,” Mr. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said in a statement. “No president should be able to reverse legislative failure by executive fiat, not even incrementally. The American people deserve a president who will respect their constitutional rights — all of them. This is a dangerous level of executive overreach, and the country will not stand for it.”
The FBI will hire 230 examiners — an increase of 50 percent — to conduct the background checks on gun purchases. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System last year received 22.2 million requests for background checks, including about 3 million in December alone.
“We intend to make this system more efficient. The goal is keeping bad actors away from firearms,” Ms. Lynch said.
Mr. Obama’s budget for fiscal 2017 also will call for 200 more ATF agents to enforce existing laws. Beefing up the department’s budget has often met with a lack of enthusiasm in Congress.
The president also will require background checks for gun purchases conducted through a trust or corporation. Officials said the number of applications for such gun purchases has risen from about 900 in 2000 to more than 90,000 in 2014.
He also directed the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security to conduct research into “smart gun” technology, “to explore potential ways to further its use and development to more broadly improve gun safety.”
Mr. Obama met with Democratic lawmakers at the White House to outline his plans.
As part of his lame-duck push on gun control, the president will hold a town-hall-style meeting on gun violence Thursday night at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, to explain his regulations. The prime-time event will be broadcast live on CNN.
Democrats and gun control groups have been pressing the White House to take action unilaterally since the Senate blocked the legislation on background checks in April 2013. Mr. Obama held a meeting last month with former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, head of Everytown for Gun Safety, which called on the president Monday to “hold high-volume sellers accountable for fueling the black market for guns that endangers our communities.”
The president said Monday that he is trying “to prevent the scourge of gun violence in this country.”
“Everybody here is all too familiar with the statistics,” Mr. Obama said. “We have tens of thousands of people every single year who are killed by guns. We have suicides that are committed by firearms at a rate that far exceeds other countries. We have a frequency of mass shootings that far exceeds other countries in frequency.”
But the number of gun deaths in the U.S. has been holding fairly steady at around 30,000 per year, and roughly two-thirds of those deaths are reported as suicides. FBI statistics show that the rate of gun deaths per capita in the U.S. is at its lowest level since 1960, when the agency began keeping track.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, met Monday with senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett and said later that the group had provided the White House with “very specific recommendations” to expand background checks on sales at gun shows or online and to crack down on “bad apple” dealers whose guns are used in a majority of crimes.
“These are real solutions that will have a dramatic impact on the devastating toll of gun violence in our nation, just by keeping guns out of the hands of the people we all agree should not have them and without infringing whatsoever on the right of a law-abiding citizen to safely buy or own guns,” Mr. Gross said.
Mr. Ryan said Washington should look at ways to address the mental illnesses that contribute to gun violence and enforce existing laws to prevent violent criminals from obtaining guns.
“Instead, the president is again targeting law-abiding citizens, intruding further into innocent Americans’ lives,” Mr. Ryan said. “At a time when the country wants the president to lead the fight against radical Islamic terror, this is yet another attempt to divide and distract from his failed policies.”
John R. Bolton, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, blasted Mr. Obama in an interview with NRA News for using the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, last month to justify more gun control.
“I think the biggest threat to national security is sitting in the Oval Office,” Mr. Bolton said. “He’s using any excuse, any pretext, any bright idea his staff can come up with to try and advance the gun control agenda.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama is taking executive action because “Congress has utterly failed in their responsibility.
“There are steps Congress can take that would not undermine the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans,” Mr. Earnest said. “But Congress has refused.”
On the mental health aspects of the president’s actions, the White House said the Social Security Administration will begin the rule-making process to include information in the background check system about beneficiaries who are prohibited from possessing firearms for mental health reasons.
The Department of Health and Human Services is finalizing a rule to remove legal barriers preventing states from reporting relevant information about people prohibited from possessing guns for specific mental health reasons.