President Obama is announcing a series of executive actions intended to combat gun violence, including a regulatory change designed to make it harder for gun buyers to avoid background checks. Obama plans to detail the moves on Tuesday with a statement in the White House East Room.
"It will potentially save lives in this country and spare families the pain and the extraordinary loss that they've suffered as a consequence of a firearm being in the hands of the wrong people," the president said Monday, after meeting privately to discuss the measures with the attorney general, the FBI director and the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
ATF will play a central role in the administration's move, by clarifying what it means to be "engaged in the business" of selling guns. Until now, some collectors and hobbyists have been able to avoid that designation. As a result, they haven't needed a federal license to sell and they haven't been required to conduct background checks on their customers. The new guidance from that bureau is designed to require more such sellers to conduct background checks, even if they're doing business only at gun shows or online.
"Let me be clear: It is not where you are located but what you are doing" that determines who must conduct background checks, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a conference call with reporters.
The administration is also working to improve the quality of background checks by encouraging states and government agencies to share more information about criminal histories, domestic violence and mental illness that could disqualify a person from buying a gun. And the FBI is hiring 230 additional staff people to speed the processing of background checks. Under current law, a gun sale can go forward if a background check is not completed within three days.
The White House conceded its moves are not a substitute for congressional action. Obama was stymied in his effort to promote gun control legislation three years ago in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
Since then, the president has complained repeatedly that mass shootings and routine gun violence are much more prevalent in the U.S. than in other developed countries.
"Although we have a strong tradition of gun ownership in this country," Obama said Monday, "I want to make sure that the wrong people don't have them for the wrong reasons."
The president's actions are likely to face both political and legal challenges from gun rights advocates. Gun sellers say the threat of a government crackdown has already contributed to a surge in holiday gun sales.