What you need to know about Obama’s executive actions on gun control

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s plan to strengthen controls on guns in the U.S. is meeting swift resistance from gun rights groups, Republicans and even a few Democrats who say it’s up to Congress to enact new policies on firearms. Yet the overall effect on gun violence could prove to be relatively small.

Some questions and answers about Obama’s presidential actions on gun control:


Obama announced a 10-point plan to try to keep guns from people who shouldn’t have them. The centerpiece is new federal guidance that seeks to clarify who is “in the business” of selling firearms and has to get a federal license.

President Barack Obama announced new gun control initiatives at the White House on Tuesday, urging Congress to take action. Video by PBS NewsHour

Licensed dealers must run background checks on prospective buyers, but private sellers don’t. Obama is aiming to narrow that loophole so that more firearms sold at gun shows, flea markets or online are subject to background checks.

Other steps include 230 new examiners the FBI will hire to process background checks. And Obama is directing federal agencies to research smart gun technology to reduce accidental shootings and asking Congress for $500 million for mental health care. Further steps aim to better track lost guns and prevent trusts or corporations from buying dangerous weapons without background checks.


There’s no cut-and-dry answer.

The new guidance says if your “principal motive” is profit, you’re a dealer, but if you occasionally sell guns from your personal collection, you’re not. Someone who only sells at gun shows or online can still be a dealer.

There’s no specific number of guns that triggers a requirement to register. But the Justice Department is warning sellers that courts have convicted people for dealing without a license even when they’ve sold as few as two guns.

It’s up to individuals to look at the guidance and determine whether they need a license. The penalties for making the wrong call are steep: up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for those who deal firearms without a license. If you’re not sure, you can contact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.


Probably not.

An Associated Press review shows that Obama’s executive actions would have had no impact in keeping weapons from suspects in several of the deadliest incidents, including Newtown, Connecticut; San Bernardino, California; and Aurora, Colorado. The shooters in Newtown and San Bernardino, for example, used weapons purchased by other people.

Obama’s actions could potentially reduce other gun deaths — especially suicides, which cause two-thirds of gun deaths. But it’s unclear whether the steps will significantly curb unregulated gun sales.

Millions of guns are sold annually in informal settings outside of gun shops, including many through private sales arranged online. The Obama administration acknowledged it couldn’t quantify how many gun sales would be newly subjected to background checks. Nor could it say how many currently unregistered gun sellers would have to obtain a license.


Obama is running out of time. With barely a year left in his presidency, he has to act quickly to roll out new policies, especially if he wants them to become ingrained and harder to rescind when the next president takes over.

After the Newtown shooting, Obama in 2013 sought far-reaching, bipartisan legislation that went beyond background checks to ban certain assault-style weapons and cap the size of ammunition clips. When the effort collapsed in the Senate, the White House said it was working to identify every legal step he could take on his own.

But a more recent spate of gun-related atrocities, including in San Bernardino, California, spurred the administration to give the issue another look.


Obama says he can. Republicans and gun rights advocates say he can’t.

The White House says Obama is acting fully within his legal authority, by clarifying existing laws that Congress has already passed. It’s an argument Obama has used before when opposition in Congress has led him to take sweeping executive action on immigration, climate change and other issues.

Still, Obama readily concedes the executive steps will be challenged in court. One likely option for opponents is to challenge Obama’s authority to define what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling guns, since that definition isn’t laid out in the law.

Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Michael R. Sisak contributed to this report.