WHITE HOUSE/CAPITOL HILL —
President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a series of new "common-sense" measures meant to reduce gun violence, bypassing Congress on the controversial issue.
Obama rolled out the new policies during a White House address, where he chided lawmakers for failing to enact tighter gun control measures despite a wave of recent mass shootings and called on them and the American people to “find the courage to do more.”
"We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency," said Obama, who was surrounded by victims of recent gun attacks. “It doesn't happen in other advanced countries. It’s not even close.”
'People are dying'
"People are dying. And the constant excuses for inaction will no longer suffice," he said. "That's why we're here today — not to discuss the last mass shooting, but to prevent the next one."
The executive actions will require more gun sellers to get licenses and more gun buyers to undergo background checks. The plan will also tighten enforcement of existing gun laws, and it asks Congress to invest $500 million to improve access to mental health care.
In addition, the Defense, Justice and Homeland Security departments will research “smart gun technology” in the hope of preventing accidental shootings by children and to help identify lost or stolen guns.
"We know we can't stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we can stop one act of evil, one act of violence," said Obama, who at times appeared emotional.
At one point, the president became emotional as he recalled the 20 young children and six others who were killed in a 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
"First-graders!" he said. Tears ran down his cheek as he added, "Every time I think about those kids, it makes me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”
Critics argue that gun control measures will do nothing to reduce violence and are a threat to Americans' right to bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Obama rejected those claims, saying, "This is not a plot to take away everybody's guns."
Furthermore, he noted, it was the rights of people killed in recent mass shootings in the U.S. that were violated.
Referring to some of those massacres, the president said, “Our right to worship freely and safely – that right was denied to Christians in Charleston, South Carolina. And that was denied Jews in Kansas City. And that was denied Muslims in Chapel Hill, and Sikhs in Oak Creek.”
Obama, a Democrat, for months has said he was looking into ways to reduce gun violence unilaterally without having to go through a Congress led by his Republican rivals who defeated his earlier, more ambitious gun control proposals.
Obama said the new rules fall "well within" his legal authority as president.
WATCH: Candidates speak out on gun control
Republicans, who generally oppose gun control measures, reacted angrily to the president's proposals. Many Republican presidential candidates said they would reverse the rules if elected.
GOP front-runner Donald Trump told CNN on Monday that Obama's proposals were the first step toward tighter restrictions on gun owners, saying: "Pretty soon you won't be able to get guns. It's another step in the way of not getting guns."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, called the proposals a "dangerous level of executive overreach" and said the president was "at minimum subverting the legislative branch, and potentially overturning its will."
Ryan also contended that Obama's plan “goes after the most law-abiding of citizens,” rather than after criminals and terrorists.
“No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment,” Ryan said. “We will conduct vigilant oversight.”
Due process concerns
Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said he worried that the president’s actions could encroach on due process by giving the government the power to deny gun ownership to those it considered mentally incompetent.
In a statement, Goodlatte said, “The House Judiciary Committee will closely monitor the administration’s actions and consider whether legislation is needed to further protect Americans’ constitutional rights.”
In the Senate, the lead Republican sponsor of legislation that would expand background checks for gun sales criticized Obama for taking action on the issue without Congress.
Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said, “The president has abused these actions in the past and exceeded the boundaries of the law. This should not be allowed under our constitutional framework.”
Toomey worked with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia in 2013 on a bill that would have expanded background checks for all gun purchases, but it was unable to get the 60 votes needed to advance.
Past time to act
Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, embraced the president’s gun safety measures.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said, “The vast majority of Americans support common sense action to reduce gun violence.”
She and many other Democratic members of Congress said it was past time for Congress to act to curb what they called an “epidemic” of gun violence.
The National Rifle Association, a powerful gun rights lobbying group, also vowed to look into the new rules to see whether it would challenge them in court. However, an NRA spokeswoman quoted in The New York Times appeared to downplay the significance of the measures.
"This is it, really?" said NRA official Jennifer Baker, according to the Times. "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."
More background checks
One key element of Obama's plan is a measure that will widen the definition of a gun dealer. The White House hopes this will require more businesses selling firearms, including those at gun shows, to get licenses and therefore be required to conduct background checks.
"We intend to make this system more efficient and make it more comprehensive," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch. "The goal is keeping bad actors away from firearms and also to make it easier for authorities to make sure that the gun laws are properly followed and enforced."
Part of the effort also includes increasing by 50 percent the number of FBI personnel who staff the national background check system, said Lynch.
Recent polls show an increase in the number of Americans who support background checks on those seeking to purchase firearms.
A new survey by Webster's research center found that 85 percent of gun owners believe there should be background checks for every individual seeking to buy a gun.
Each year, firearms claim the lives of more than 30,000 Americans in mass killings, suicides, domestic violence and other incidents, according to the White House.
VOA's Mary Alice Salinas contributed to this report. Cindy Saine contributed from Capitol Hill.