WASHINGTON (AP) — A visibly emotional President Barack Obama, at one point wiping tears from his cheek, unveiled his plan Tuesday to tighten control and enforcement of firearms in the U.S., using his presidential powers in the absence of legal changes he implored Congress to pass.
Obama accused the gun lobby of taking Congress hostage, but said "they cannot hold America hostage." He insisted it was possible to uphold the Second Amendment while doing something to tackle the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. that he said had become "the new normal."
"This is not a plot to take away everybody's guns," Obama said in a ceremony in the East Room. "You pass a background check, you purchase a firearm. The problem is some gun sellers have been operating under a different set of rules."
Obama wiped tears away as he recalled the 20 first-graders killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He paid tribute to the parents, some of whom gathered for the ceremony, who he said had never imagined their child's life would be cut short by a bullet.
See Obama addressing the nation after past mass shootings:
Obama addressing the nation on U.S. shootings & gun control during his presidency
An emotional Obama unveils his plan to cut gun violence
An emotional President Barack Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, pauses as he recalled the 20 first-graders killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, while speaking in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
US President Barack Obama gets emotional as he delivers a statement on executive actions to reduce gun violence on January 5, 2016 at the White House in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on executive actions to reduce gun violence on January 5, 2016 at the White House in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama makes a statement on Wednesday's mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama makes a statement on Wednesday's mass shooting in San Bernandino, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, about the shooting at the community college in Oregon. The shooting happened at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., about 180 miles south of Portland. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, about the shooting at the community college in Oregon. The shooting happened at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., about 180 miles south of Portland. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Barack Obama, left, sits with FBI Director James Comey, right, before speaking to members of the media in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 16, 2015, on the shooting in Chattanooga, Tenn. A gunman unleashed a barrage of fire at a recruiting station and another U.S. military site, killing at least four Marines. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 16, 2015, upon his arrival on Marine One helicopter after a short trip from Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Obama was heading towards the Oval Office and there he would be briefed by his counterterrorism and homeland security adviser and the FBI director on the recent shooting in Chattanooga, Tenn. Obama promised a thorough and prompt investigation into an attack at two military sites that killed at least four Marines. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama claps along to the music as he arrives with first lady Michelle Obama for services honoring the life of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015, at the College of Charleston TD Arena in Charleston, S.C. Pinckney was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week in Charleston. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
In this June 19, 2015, photo, President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks about gun violence at the Annual Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco. Conceding that congressional action was unlikely soon, President Barack Obama said lawmakers will tighten federal firearms restrictions when they believe the public is demanding it. "I am not resigned," Obama said. "I have faith we will eventually do the right thing." (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, pauses while speaking in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 18, 2015, on the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., prior to his departure to Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 18, 2015, on the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., prior to his departure to Los Angeles. The current brick Gothic revival edifice, completed in 1891 to replace an earlier building heavily damaged in an earthquake, was a mandatory stop for the likes of Booker T. Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Still, Emanuel was not just a church for the black community. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Barack Obama listens to a question during a Tumblr forum from the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, moderated by Tumblr Founder and CEO David Karp, left. During the forum Obama conceded he was ashamed as an American and terrified as a parent that the United States can't find it in its soul to put a stop to rampant shooting sprees. Barring a fundamental shift in public opinion, Obama said, "it will not change." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during a memorial ceremony, Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at Fort Hood, Texas, for those killed there in a shooting last week. President Barack Obama is reprising his role as chief comforter as he returns once again to a grief-stricken corner of America to mourn with the families of those killed last week at Fort Hood and offer solace to the nation.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive for a memorial ceremony, Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at Fort Hood Texas, for those killed there in a shooting last week. President Barack Obama is reprising his role as chief comforter as he returns once again to a grief-stricken corner of America to mourn with the families of those killed last week at Fort Hood and offer solace to the nation.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama is seen on stage before speaking about yesterday's shooting at Fort Hood, during an event welcoming members of the USs teams from the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, Thursday, April 3, 2014, in the East Room of White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
AP10ThingsToSee - President Barack Obama hugs a family member of a victim of the Washington Navy Yard shooting at Marine Barracks in Washington during a memorial service Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. A gunman killed 12 people in the Navy Yard on Sept. 16 before being fatally shot in a gun battle with law enforcement. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama attend a memorial service for the victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting at Marine Barracks Washington Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. A gunman killed 12 people in the Navy Yard on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, before being fatally shot in a gun battle with law enforcement. The president and first lady Michelle Obama also visited with the victims' families. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex, Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Washington. Before speaking about the economy Obama spoke on the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, mourning what he called "yet another mass shooting" in the United States that he says took the life of American patriots. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
FILE - In this April 17, 2013 file photo President Barack Obama speaks in the White House Rose Garden of the White House about measures to reduce gun violence with former Rep. Gabby Giffords and family of victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting. Six months after a gunman took their children's lives, some family members are headed back to Capitol Hill this week to remind lawmakers they are painfully waiting for action. From left are Neil Heslin, who lost his son Jesse Lewis; Giffords; Jimmy Greene, who lost his daughter Ana; Vice President Joe Biden; Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan; Mark and Jackie Barden, with their children Natalie and James, who lost their son Daniel; and Jeremy Richman, behind the Barden's, who lost his daughter Avielle. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
President Barack Obama looks at Nicole Hockley and her husband Ian, right, after she introduced him at the University of Hartford in Hartford, Conn., Monday, April 8, 2013. The Hockley's lost a child in the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtoen, Conn. Obama said that lawmakers have an obligation to the children killed and other victims of gun violence to act on his proposals. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Obama embraces a woman while honoring shooting victim's families during a visit to the University of Hartford, in Hartford, Conn., Monday, April 8, 2013. The President visited the school to highlight gun control legislation and to meet with the families of victims from the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings.(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
FILE - In this Jan. 16, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, talks about proposals to reduce gun violence at the White House in Washington. Obama has called for a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and is pushing other policies in the wake of the mass shooting last month at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. In response, gun-rights advocates have accused Obama and others of ignoring the Second Amendment rights of Americans. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, left, hugs eight-year-old letter writer Grant Fritz during a news conference on proposals to reduce gun violence, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington. Obama and Biden were joined by law enforcement officials, lawmakers and children who wrote the president about gun violence following the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
FILE - This Dec. 16, 2012 file photo shows President Barack Obama pausing during a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. The National Rifle Association, the nationâs largest gun lobby, suggested shielding children from gun violence by placing an armed police officer in every school by the time classes resume in January. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, File)
President Barack Obama wipes his eye as he talks about the Connecticut elementary school shooting, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, in the White House briefing room in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks about the Aurora, Colo., shooting at an campaign event at the Harborside Event Center in Ft. Myers, Fla., Friday, July 20, 2012. Obama, who was scheduled to spend the day campaigning in Florida, cancelled his campaign events to return to Washington to monitor the shooting. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
FILE - In this March 14, 2011, file photo President Barack Obama speaks at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va. More than five months after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, the White House has yet to take any new steps on gun violence, even though thatâs what Obama called for in the wake of the shooting. (AP Photo, File)
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are joined by government employees on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 10, 2011, to observe a moment of silence for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the other victims of an assassination attempt against her. The shooting at a town hall-style event outside a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz., Saturday left six dead, including a federal judge, and critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at a memorial service for the victims of Saturday's shootings at McKale Center on the University of Arizona campus Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Victims' family members, along with President Obama, attend a memorial service at Fort Hood, Texas, for the victims of the Fort Hood shootings on Tuesday Nov. 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Jay Janner, POOL)
President Barack Obama speaks at a memorial service in Fort Hood, Texas on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009 for the victims of Thursday's shootings. (AP Photo/Pool, Jay Janner)
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"Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad," Obama said.
At the centerpiece of Obama's plan is a more sweeping definition of gun dealers that the administration hopes will expand the number of sales subject to background checks. Under current law, only federally licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks on buyers. But at gun shows, websites and flea markets, sellers often skirt that requirement by declining to register as licensed dealers.
Aiming to narrow that loophole, the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is issuing updated guidance that says the government should deem anyone "in the business" of selling guns to be a dealer, regardless of where he or she sells the guns. To that end, the government will consider other factors, including how many guns a person sells, how frequently, and whether those guns are sold for a profit.
See how politicians and others are reacting to Obama's plan:
Social reactions to Obama gun control speech
An emotional Obama unveils his plan to cut gun violence
Thank you, @POTUS, for taking a crucial step forward on gun violence. Our next president has to build on that progress—not rip it away. -H
This is a dangerous level of executive overreach, & the country will not stand for it. https://t.co/YgNrG94tjg https://t.co/eMCSSSp3Rh
Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders on President Obama's executive actions @NBCDFW https://t.co/mGllswtasI
Statement from @RepKayGranger on President Obama's actions on gun control @NBCDFW https://t.co/mVTMgwmNCE
Barack Obama begins crying during WhiteHouse talk referring to the 20 slaughtered 1st graders in Newtown. The tears started & wouldn't stop.
I don't care who you are, where you're from, what you did, as long as you agree 1000% to Obama's brilliant and passionate gun control speech
Whether you agree with his policy or not you can't deny Obama has sincere compassion. Congress should take note and learn compassion
I am proud every day working for President Obama, but especially today #StopGunViolence
Tears or not, Obama's gun law has zero chance of passing. This is gonna keep happening. Wonder if that's part of his frustration/fury.
Wonder if Republicans will greet President Obama's executive orders on guns with #thoughtsandprayers
So Obama just blamed variously the NRA, the voters, Congress, and the Constitution for gun violence. Funny, never criminals or terrorists.
Cruz: "Those exec. orders are not worth the paper they're printed on bc when you live by the pen, you die by the pen & my pen has an eraser"
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The White House also put sellers on notice that the administration planned to strengthen enforcement — including deploying 230 new examiners the FBI will hire to process background checks.
The impact of Obama's plan on gun violence remains a major question, and one not easily answered. Had the rules been in place in the past, the steps wouldn't likely have prevented any of the recent mass shootings that have garnered national attention. The Obama administration acknowledged it couldn't quantify how many gun sales would be newly subjected to background checks, nor how many currently unregistered gun sellers would have to obtain a license.
Pushing back on that critique, Obama said every time the issue is debated, gun rights groups argue the steps wouldn't necessarily have stopped the last massacre, "so why bother trying?"
"I reject that thinking," Obama said, arguing it would be worth it if the measures would prevent even a single gun death. "We maybe can't save everybody, but we could save some."
To lend a personal face to the issue, the White House assembled a cross-section of Americans whose lives were altered by the nation's most searing recent gun tragedies, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and relatives of victims from Charleston, S.C., at Virginia Tech. Mark Barden, whose son was shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School, introduced the president with a declaration that "we are better than this."
Invoking the words of Martin Luther King Jr., Obama said, "We need to feel the fierce urgency of now."
Obama's package of executive actions aims to curb what he's described as a scourge of gun violence in the U.S., punctuated by appalling mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Charleston, South Carolina; and Tucson, Arizona, among many others. After Newtown, Obama sought far-reaching, bipartisan legislation that went beyond background checks.
When the effort collapsed in the Senate, the White House said it was thoroughly researching the president's powers 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, shootings have spurred the administration to give the issue another look, as Obama seeks to make good on a policy issue that he's elevated time and again but has failed until now to advance.