The White House is putting finishing touches on several measures in an effort to make progress on curbing gun violence, an issue the president and close aides have found frustratingly intractable, before the race to replace him enters prime time.
The administration is also expected to impose tighter rules for reporting guns that get lost or stolen on their way to a buyer.
Neither comes close to the stronger gun control measures Obama sought in the wake of the 2012 mass shooting of schoolchildren in Sandy Hook and that he has said he still wants. But with Congress unlikely to approve any new gun curbs before the 2016 election, the measures are in line with what gun-control advocates were hoping would be adopted before Obama leaves office.
As with every aspect of the president’s final year, the decisions about the gun actions are being made with a sense of limited time and the 2016 political calendar. Obama will be returning from his Hawaii vacation, eager to make a splash; an earlier-than-normal State of the Union address on Jan. 12 is central to that strategy. But with the Iowa caucuses taking place on Feb. 1, Obama will have only a small window to act before the primary melee begins to crowd out other political news.
The background check change has been anticipated for months. Obama will tighten the definition of what it means to be “engaged in the business” of firearms sales. Currently, the law says people who sell guns with the “principal objective of livelihood and profit” have to get a dealer’s license through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — and therefore conduct a background check on buyers no matter where they sell, including online or at a gun show.
It’s unclear whether a lot more dealers would line up for licenses. But gun-control advocates say a better definition would make it much easier to prosecute sellers who should, but don’t. Only about half of the people who are tried for selling guns without a license are convicted by juries, according to a report from Everytown, the pro-gun control group led by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In an interview, Everytown officials couldn’t confirm whether the White House was heeding their advice. But, said legal director Liz Avore, “Any kind of clarification would be beneficial in this context because right now most sellers and prosecutors are kind of flying blind.”
It's not clear whether Obama has settled on final language yet. But as one of the major proponents of a change, Everytown has recommended adding several factors to the definition — including selling guns in their original packaging, reselling a gun shortly after acquiring it, maintaining a certain quantity of guns for sale or selling more than 25 guns a year — as possible signals that someone needs a license.
A top gun industry executive defended the current definition, saying it requires dealers to make most of their living from gun sales before requiring a license. Based on conversations with ATF officials this month, the executive described the upcoming change as "overreach": “If you are not doing it for the principal purpose of earning a livelihood AND earn a profit, you are not engaged in the business as defined by Congress,” he said in an email.
Another victory for advocates is likely to be a requirement for all licensed dealers and manufacturers to report to federal authorities any guns that are stolen in transit to a buyer as missing from their inventory. Currently, advocates say, thieves often target packages addressed to gun retailers in the hopes of stealing unregistered guns that are harder to trace. And while buyer and seller might sort out refunds or replacements on their own, they’re not required to report the missing guns to the National Crime Information Center.
ATF first proposed the new regulation in August 2014, which industry opposed, saying a voluntary reporting program was working just fine. But the year-and-a-half lag between the rule’s proposal and finalization is another factor urging Obama to act forcefully as he enters the last year in his term.
It is not clear whether the measure will take the form of a new regulation (which would take months longer to finish because of requirements for public comment) or clarification of an existing rule, which would take less time but might not carry as much weight with the courts — or a future administration.
“We have not been told that they are drafting a proposed rule,” the industry executive said. “But it remains to be seen.”
The White House declined to comment on the substance of the executive actions or their timing. Communications Director Jen Psaki told reporters at an event hosted by Bloomberg News in mid-December that the new gun measures were coming in “weeks, not months.”
This latest round of executive moves follows 23 actions related to gun violence that Obama ordered in 2013, in the months following the Sandy Hook massacre, plus two more in 2014. During that same period, Vice President Joe Biden led a failed campaign with congressional Democrats to pass a bill to impose near-universal background checks.
The president’s announcement of new gun actions will be more like his immigration executive orders in late 2014 — currently held up by the courts — issued as part of a broader campaign to pressure Congress and draw a contrast with Republicans.
White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett also raised gun-control advocates’ hopes for new domestic violence provisions last month. In a post on the actress Lena Dunham’s website, Jarrett noted that guns are the most likely cause of death for women who are victims of domestic partner violence.
Gun-control activists acknowledged that changing the rules for licenses might have limited impact on what sellers actually do in the short term. But in this political environment, they’ll take whatever measures they can, no matter how incremental.
“Setting cultural norms," said Everytown research director Ted Alcorn, "is something that laws do."