President Barack Obama moved Monday to require all gun sellers to register as dealers _ even those who sell at gun shows and online _ and to run background checks on all prospective purchasers, aiming to curb a scourge of gun violence despite unyielding opposition to new gun laws in Congress.
The president has been looking for ways to work around a Republican-led Congress that has blocked his previous efforts to tighten gun laws in the wake of mass shootings. Obama has accused Republicans – and some Democrats – of being beholden to the powerful gun industry lobby and opposing some measures he says a majority of Americans support, including expanded background checks on gun sales. But the issue of gun control bitterly divides Americans, with many viewing any attempt to regulate firearms as a possible infringement on their constitutional rights to own guns.
“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.”
Obama’s plan to broaden background checks forms the centerpiece of a broader package of measures the president plans to take on his own on gun control in his final year in office. Although Obama can’t unilaterally change gun laws, the president is hoping that beefing up enforcement of existing laws can prevent at least some gun deaths in a country rife with them.
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 other informal settings don’t register as dealers. Gun control advocates say that loophole is exploited to skirt the background check requirement.
The executive actions on gun control fall far short of what he and like-minded lawmakers attempted to accomplish with legislation in 2013, after a massacre at a Connecticut elementary school that shook the nation’s conscience. Even still, the more modest measures were sure to spark a confrontation with Republicans and gun rights groups that oppose new impediments to buying guns.
“We’re very comfortable that the president can legally take these actions now,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Far from mandating background checks for all gun sales, the new guidance still exempt collectors and gun hobbyists, and the exact definition of who must register as a dealer and conduct background checks remains exceedingly vague. The administration did not issue a number for how many guns someone must sell to be considered a dealer, instead saying it planned to remind people that courts have deemed people to be dealers in some cases even if they only sell a handful of guns.
And the background check provision rests in the murky realm of agency guidelines, which have less force than full-fledged federal regulations and can easily be rescinded. Many of the Republican presidential candidates running to succeed Obama have vowed to rip up his new gun restrictions upon taking office.