President Obama and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch spoke to reporters in the Oval Office on Monday. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
President Obama will announce executive actions on Tuesday intended to expand background checks for some firearm purchases and step up federal enforcement of the nation’s gun laws, White House officials said Monday, once again trying to sidestep a gridlocked Congress on a politically divisive issue.
But faced with clear legal limitations on his authority, Mr. Obama will take modest steps that stop well short of the kind of large-scale changes to the gun trade that he unsuccessfully sought from Congress three years ago. That legislation would have closed loopholes that allow millions of guns to be sold without background checks at gun shows or in online firearm exchanges.
Instead, Mr. Obama will clarify that existing laws require anyone making a living by selling guns to register as a licensed gun dealer and conduct background checks. White House officials said the president would note that criminal penalties already exist for violating those laws.
“We have to be very clear that this is not going to solve every violent crime in this country,” Mr. Obama said on Monday, ahead of a formal announcement on Tuesday. “It’s not going to prevent every mass shooting; it’s not going to keep every gun out of the hands of a criminal.”
Despite the limited nature of Mr. Obama’s executive actions, advocates on both sides appeared determined to describe them in sweeping terms for their own purposes. Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, said on Monday that “pretty soon, you won’t be able to get guns,” while a news release from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence predicted that “history will be made in the East Room of the White House tomorrow.”
White House officials acknowledge that Mr. Obama’s actions will intensify a fierce election-year debate about the Second Amendment and the limits of presidential power. That debate has grown in the last several days, with gun rights activists and Republican presidential candidates condemning the president’s expected actions as a power grab, and victims’ groups hailing them as a victory.
Frustrated by his inability to secure tougher gun laws despite a series of mass shootings, Mr. Obama is determined to demonstrate that he is doing something on the gun issue, even as he is mindful of the limits on his authority.
Under his plan, the White House said, officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will begin contacting gun sellers to let them know of new standards to “clarify” who would be considered a regulated dealer — taking into account factors such as whether someone has a business card, uses a website or sells guns in their original packaging.
But there will be no set number for defining how many guns sold would make someone a “dealer” — a standard that some groups had pushed as essential to giving the changes more teeth. White House officials said someone could sell as few as one or two guns yet still be considered a dealer whose sales are subject to background checks.
The changes are particularly meant for online gun merchants, who often avoid conducting background checks despite making high-volume gun sales through websites like armslist.com.
All of the Democratic candidates want new gun laws, while nearly all Republicans are against additional restrictions they see as harmful to Second Amendment rights.
“Right now it’s really an Internet loophole,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said Monday. “Gun sales are moving online.”
Mr. Obama will hire more personnel to process background checks in a timely manner, direct officials to conduct more gun research, improve the information in the background check system, encourage more domestic violence prosecutions and order better tracking of lost guns. He will also make it easier for states to provide mental health information to the background check system, which could bar a gun sale.
But officials said it was impossible to predict whether the new directives would have made any difference in recent shootings, such as the one in San Bernardino, Calif.
“We can and must do something about it,” Valerie Jarrett, a top adviser to Mr. Obama, said on Monday. “Our politics unite us together when we are taking on other epidemics, so why not gun violence?”
The gun issue has vexed Mr. Obama for years. In the weeks after the December 2012 massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., Mr. Obama vowed to seek new gun laws from Congress that would require background checks for all firearms purchases.
That effort failed several months later, despite high-profile efforts by the president to persuade members of Congress. Visibly angry, Mr. Obama scolded lawmakers during Rose Garden remarks, calling it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”
In the years that followed, Mr. Obama largely abandoned his pursuit of new gun laws, even in the face of more mass shootings. In October, however, the shooting at a college in Oregon prompted Mr. Obama to again promise action, telling his aides to “scrub the law” for actions he could take to prevent further gun violence.
By taking action without Congress, Mr. Obama again risks a legal challenge to his authority that could block his orders for the remainder of his term. A legal challenge to the president’s plan to protect up to five million illegal immigrants from deportation and provide them work permits remains locked in litigation. The Supreme Court could agree to take up the immigration case later this month.
But in the case of guns, Mr. Obama may have chosen to err on the side of caution, telling reporters after an Oval Office meeting with Ms. Lynch on Monday that his actions would be “well within” his legal authority.
A spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association said on Monday that the organization’s lawyers would look at the president’s proposals more closely to determine if there was anything they might go to court to challenge. But she said that at first glance the plan seemed surprisingly thin.
“This is it, really?” asked Jennifer Baker, an official with the N.R.A.’s Washington lobbying arm. “This is what they’ve been hyping for how long now? This is the proposal they’ve spent seven years putting together? They’re not really doing anything.”
Representative Mike Thompson, Democrat of California and the chairman of the gun control caucus in the House, praised the president for taking action but said it would not be enough to solve the problem of mass shootings and gun violence.
“I think he’s done all that he can do under his authority,” Mr. Thompson said. “What really needs to be done is the laws need to be changed. There needs to be a law that says you buy a gun, you get a background check.”