President Obama announced a series of executive actions last week that are intended to make it harder for criminals and people with a history of mental illness to buy guns. The actions are controversial, earning praise from gun control advocates and criticism from many Republicans and gun owners.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives licenses gun dealers. The ATF defines gun dealers as people who repetitively buy and sell firearms with the primary goal of earning a profit. People who make occasional sales from a personal collection are not considered dealers. An individual who advertises, has business cards, accepts credit cards, and restocks inventory is generally considered a dealer and must be licensed.
In some states, unlicensed sellers can make private sales without conducting a background check. Obama’s executive order could reduce the number of sales made without background checks by requiring more sellers to be licensed as dealers. Federally licensed gun dealers are required to conduct background checks on all sellers, regardless of whether a purchase is made at a store or a gun show.
A buyer must present identification to the seller and fill out ATF Form 4473 with information including name, age, address, race, criminal history, drug use, and history of mental illness. The seller submits the information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation over the phone or internet, and the FBI checks for information on the applicant in databases.
The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, operates 17 hours a day, every day except Christmas. Obama would like it to expand to 24 hours a day. Since the system was introduced 17 years ago, the FBI has conducted over 225 million background checks.
The FBI set a record in 2015, processing over 23 million background checks. A monthly record was set in December, the same month as the shootings in San Bernardino, California. The previous record was set in 2013 following a push for greater gun control after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.
Obama wants the FBI to hire 230 new examiners to process background checks. He also wants Congress to approve funding to hire 200 new agents for the ATF to enforce laws.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 first mandated background checks. The law was named after Jim Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary who was paralyzed after being shot by John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate Reagan in 1981. The Brady Campaign supports expanded background checks for gun sales.
Obama decided to use executive actions to expand gun control measures after his efforts to get legislation passed by Congress were unsuccessful. The last major attempt at expanding gun control at the federal level was in 2013 when President Obama and Democrats proposed expanding background checks and limiting sales of some semi-automatic weapons. Those measures were defeated in the Senate in April 2013.