WASHINGTON—Two years ago, a government report said the nation’s federal regulator of firearms didn’t have the resources to inspect existing gun dealers.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama formally unveiled a plan to beef up gun regulation, which at its core expands the definition of a gun dealer, adding more to the ranks. That is just one challenge the administration will face in enforcing the new policy.
Mike Campbell, a retired agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the proposal harkened to the early 1990s when there were more than 280,000 dealers, a number he said was unmanageable.
“We called them kitchen-table-top dealers,” Mr. Campbell said, and the ATF didn’t have the manpower to regulate them. “So now you want to go back to that? So are we going to start monitoring gun shows to see what the private seller is selling?” Partly in response, a 1993 law enacted under President Bill Clinton tightened the rules on who could be a dealer, cutting it by more than half.
Brian Garner, spokesman for the ATF, said the president’s proposal to request funding for 200 new agents and investigators “would help obviously.”
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said adding to the number of dealers would naturally increase the number of individuals required to perform “life saving” background checks, also laid out in the president’s plan.
Bypassing Congress on a policy that has stymied the administration, Mr. Obama said he was acting to reduce gun violence in ways that are consistent with the Second Amendment. The president doesn’t need lawmakers’ approval to clarify existing laws and reclassify unlicensed vendors as gun dealers. But it is unclear whether his objectives could be accomplished without additional funding from the Republican-controlled Congress.
GOP lawmakers called Mr. Obama’s moves an executive overreach and offered a reminder that Congress ultimately controls the purse strings.
Regardless of funding constraints, opponents of the president’s move said a lack of guidance on what constitutes being a gun dealer could deter legitimate private sales and would be open to abuse.
Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s political arm, called the steps “legislating through intimidation” and added: “I think chilling is an understatement.”
The ATF long has had staffing issues, and a Justice Department Inspector General report released in 2013 found it struggled to inspect existing dealers because of insufficient resources.
The agency’s most recent numbers show more than 140,000 federally licensed dealers, half of what existed before the 1993 law. The White House’s plan would add to that total, though administration officials can’t say how many more people will be classified as dealers, in part because the new definition remains vague.
The agency has about 780 industry operations investigators, and not all of them perform dealer examinations.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch told reporters Monday that securing additional resources for the ATF is an important part of the plan, adding “we hope that Congress will see the wisdom of supporting this.”
Republicans have shown little inclination to work with the president. Rep. John Culberson (R., Texas) vowed this week in a letter to Ms. Lynch that the House Appropriations Committee would use the power of the purse to ensure that money isn’t spent on executive orders that encroach on gun rights.
Unveiling the policy in the White House’s East Room, Mr. Obama spoke of meeting parents who lost children in the 2012 massacre in Connecticut. He said the experience changed him and he hoped it would change the country, too. The president wiped away tears as he remembered the first-graders killed.
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” he said. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt during a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., five years ago, attended the White House event.
The president said Tuesday that no single measure would stop every gun crime, but contended it was worthwhile to stop even “one act of evil, one act of violence.”
Republican presidential candidates all condemned the Mr. Obama’s executive moves, with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida saying the president’s unilateral actions undermined the Second Amendment.
“On my first day, it’s gone,” Mr. Rubio said during a campaign stop in Iowa. The other candidates made broadly similar comments.
Another provision of the president’s plan could also prove to be thorny: using Social Security Administration data to help identify people who should be prohibited from purchasing firearms on mental-health grounds.
Jennifer Mathis, director of programs at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a group that supports rights for the mentally ill, said it is erroneous to suggest disability recipients who are deemed unable to manage their financial affairs are also dangerous.
“Because someone needs help managing their money doesn’t mean they are going to shoot somebody,” she said.
Ron Honberg, the national director for policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said his group was happy the proposal requests $500 million for treatment. “If it goes through appropriations that will be the challenge, but it is a welcome idea,” he said.