Obama Takes His Last Shot at Gun Control

Congress won’t act on the problem that now kills more Americans than cars kill so the president is going it alone by shrinking major loopholes for sellers.

01.05.16 3:00 AM ET

Nothing has frustrated President Obama more than his inability to get Congress to pass legislation to address the country’s rampant gun violence, so he is going around Congress.

On Tuesday in the East Room of the White House, Obama will unveil a series of actions to strengthen gun laws and gun safety—and infuriate his critics.

Why didn’t he do it sooner? That question was posed to administration officials in a call with reporters, and the answer could be summed up in a phrase Obama often uses: Enough is enough—and time is running out on his watch.

The central element of his executive actions is shrinking what is commonly called the “gun show loophole.” Gun dealers who sell over the Internet or have a booth at a gun show or flea market where they sell firearms for profit will no longer be exempt from conducting background checks on buyers. The exemption for hobbyists and collectors will still remain, though.

“Just because you shop for guns with a mouse and not with your feet, you can’t escape background checks,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser, told reporters.

Another relatively new “trust loophole” will also be closed where guns are acquired through a corporation or trust or some other legal entity. In 2000, there were fewer than 900 requests for these purchases; two years ago, the number was 90,000, according to Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Lynch spoke to the rapidly changing marketplace for guns, telling reporters it should be called the “Internet loophole,” that gun shows pale next to guns bought and sold on the Web.

“Gun sales are moving online not only to consumers but to the dark Web where illicit activity takes place,” she said.

Dan Gross with the Brady Campaign praised the expansion of background checks that the late James Brady and his wife, Sarah, championed after he was grievously wounded during the assassination attempt on President Reagan.

“Brady background checks have blocked more than 2.4 million gun sales to prohibited purchasers, saving countless lives. The problem is every day there are thousands of commercial sales where background checks are not required. Thanks to the president’s historic action today that will no longer be the case,” Gross said in a statement.

Among the other steps Obama will announce, and that his aides detailed to reporters, include modernizing the National Instant Check System (NICS), which Lynch said receives 63,000 requests every day requiring phone calls. Instead, it will become an automated 24/7 system. Currently, if a gun dealer doesn’t get a response back within three days, the sale can be made. Dylann Roof, the shooter who attacked a black church in Charleston, South Carolina last year, would have been stopped from purchasing his gun if the system had been more efficient.

Even so, Lynch was reluctant to customize any of the president’s actions to any particular case. Officials repeated what Obama often says, that no one law or executive order could stop all gun violence.

“Frankly, if it does stop one act of violence, it is worth it,” said Lynch.

In the fact sheet distributed by the White House, there are numerous references to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) refining its rules and stepping up enforcement of existing laws. Obama is requesting funding to hire 200 new ATF agents in his budget to Congress, along with $500 million to increase access to mental-health treatment.

There is bipartisan support for addressing mental health needs, but Congress has a long history of starving the ATF of resources, and there is little likelihood the Republican-led House will approve funding more ATF agents.

With the revelation that guns now kill more Americans than car accidents, there is a new urgency to the issue of gun violence. Yet administration officials were unable to say how many gun dealers might be brought into compliance with background checks under Obama’s new executive order. Record keeping around guns is difficult to determine in part because the National Rifle Association has kept it that way.

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President Obama will underscore when he speaks from the East Room that he his taking “common sense” actions that are backed by a strong majority of Americans. Even Republican support is “north of 75 percent,” said Press Secretary Josh Ernest.

A common refrain from Obama’s critics is that none of the actions he is introducing would have prevented any of the individual acts of carnage that periodically dominate the headlines. That may be true, but the administration has crafted a set of guidelines and regulations that together could have an affect, but that should in no way absolve Congress from acting.

Obama won’t be letting Congress off the hook, and in an election year, that’s good politics and in the case of guns, good policy too. Before the holidays, Congress voted against closing a loophole that allows someone on the no-fly list to legally purchase a firearm. Obama has found his voice on this issue, and he is ready to take his case to the public believing the country is with him and ready to turn the corner on gun violence. Enough is enough.