Barack Obama to close background checks loophole on gun show sales
Thousands of unlicensed gun shows and online dealers will be forced to conduct customer background checks for the first time in a fresh effort by Barack Obama to tackle America’s epidemic of deadly shootings.
In measures aimed at circumventing political deadlock in Congress that will inevitably set off a fierce battle in the courts, the president is due to close a loophole in the current system as well as call for greater spending on enforcement and new technology that could prevent unauthorised gun use.
“The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage, but they can’t hold America hostage,” Obama said in a tweet that accompanied an official preview of the announcement due on Tuesday. “We can’t accept this carnage in our communities.”
The news was welcomed by gun safety campaigners, although more than a dozen separate calls for other executive actions do not appear to have made the White House draft proposal and other measures that would require congressional funding to be implemented.
“President Obama’s decision to clarify and enforce the law requiring more gun sellers to conduct background checks is an important victory for public safety and a setback for criminals and gun traffickers,” said former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a co-founder of Everytown for Gun Safety, the main lobby group advocating stricter gun laws.
Earlier the group described the issue of closing background-check loopholes as the “centerpiece” of its hopes for Obama’s action on guns.
“It doesn’t matter where you conduct your business – from a store, at gun shows or over the internet: if you are in the business of selling firearms, you must get a license and conduct background checks,” said the White House statement.
It also called for 200 additional agents in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to be included in the 2017 federal budget, a move that would require the Republican-controlled Congress to drop its longstanding suspicion of the agency.
But a separate call for $500m in extra mental health funding may stand more chance of receiving bipartisan support as a number of Republicans have recently flagged the issue as an alternative approach to dealing with mass shootings.
The White House also plans to better join the dots between different agencies, requiring, for example, that people registered as mentally ill with the Department of Social Security have their information passed to the FBI for the purposes of background checks on gun sales.
“Some of the gaps in our country’s gun laws can only be fixed through legislation, which is why the President continues to call on Congress to pass the kind of commonsense gun safety reforms supported by a majority of the American people,” the White House said in its statement.
Speaking after a meeting with senior officials, Obama promised that sweeping new gun control measures would save lives and spare families from mass shootings.
“We have to be very clear that this is not going to solve every violent crime in this country or prevent every mass shooting and is not going to keep every gun out of the hand of a criminal,” Obama said after a meeting with attorney general Loretta Lynch to review her recommendations. “It will potentially save lives and spare families the pain and the extraordinary loss that they have suffered as a consequence of firearms getting into the hand of the wrong people,” he added.
Republicans have promised to fight such measures in the courts, a process that could take up much of the remaining year that Obama has in office.
“While we don’t yet know the details of the plan, the president is at minimum subverting the legislative branch, and potentially overturning its will,” said House speaker Paul Ryan in a statement.
“His proposals to restrict gun rights were debated by the United States Senate, and they were rejected. No president should be able to reverse legislative failure by executive fiat, not even incrementally ... This is a dangerous level of executive overreach, and the country will not stand for it.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest confirmed on Monday that the president had made up his mind to take the actions, but insisted the measures – expected to be unveiled as soon as Tuesday – would withstand legal challenge.
“I feel confident in telling you now that what the president does announce will be the kinds of actions in which we have confidence that they are within the legal ability of the United States to carry out these actions,” he told reporters.
Campaigners who have helped draft a wishlist of up to 17 different executive actions also insisted that the flagship proposal of closing background check loopholes was within the remit of the president.
“We have no concerns whatsoever about the legality of action in this area,” added Oransky. “We think it is squarely within the power of the administration to clarify a statutory definition that is vague. This is exactly the kind of thing that the White House and DOJ are supposed to do.”
Officials hope that clarifying the so-called “engaged in the business” language in existing background check legislation will go a long way to prevent criminals and mentally ill people from buying guns through sellers who exploit a current loophole designed only for hobbyists and personal sales.
“Although it is my strong belief that for us to get our complete arm around the issues, Congress needs to act, what I asked my team to do is to see what more we could do to strengthen our enforcement and prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands,” said Obama. “To make sure that criminals, people who are mentally unstable, those who could pose a danger to themselves or others are less likely to be able to get a gun.”
The president said the measures, which may also involve attempts to arrest those who lie about failing a background check when trying to buy weapons, would have the support of the majority of law-abiding gun owners.
“I have just received back a report from attorney Lynch [and others] about some of the ideas and initiatives that they claim will make a difference,” he said. “The good news is that these are not only recommendations that are well within my legal authority and executive branch, but they are also ones that the overwhelming majority of American people – including gun owners – support.
“We have been very careful in recognising that we have strong tradition of gun ownership in this country and that even those who possess firearms for hunting, for self-protection and other legitimate reasons, want to make sure that they don’t get into the wrong hands,” added Obama.