He justified the move, which bypasses Congress, by emphasizing the urgency of the issue and Congress' repeated failure to act on it.
"The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they can't hold America hostage," Obama said in an emotional address at the White House.
“This is not a plot to take away everybody's guns. You pass a background check, you purchase a firearm. The problem is, some gun sellers have been operating under a different set of rules. A violent felon can buy the exact same weapon over the internet with no background check, no questions asked.“
The new executive actions require background checks for all gun purchases, including at gun shows, stores and on the Internet. The actions also devote additional funding to increasing mental health care access, while mandating that federal mental health records be submitted to the background check system. And they call for expanded research and development of gun safety technology like fingerprint trigger locks and apps for tracking stolen guns.
Obama added that while Americans are not inherently more prone to violence than people in other nations, "we are the only advanced country on earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency ... Somehow we've become numb to it and we start thinking that this is normal. And instead of thinking about how to solve the problem, this has become one of our most polarized partisan debates."
Republican presidential candidates were quick to attack the measure as blatant government overreach and abuse of executive power as well as a direct assault on Second Amendment rights.
Gun control laws vary dramatically by state. Aside from the relatively loose federal restrictions that apply everywhere, each state can determine much of its own gun purchasing, possession and carry rules. In states like New York and California, where these laws are relatively strict, purchasing and carrying a firearm is notably more restricted than in states with comparatively lax laws, like Alaska and New Mexico. But how those rules impact the rate of gun-related deaths in those states remains hotly contested.
Every year, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, an advocacy group pushing for tougher gun control regulations, reviews each state's gun laws and assigns grades based on the strength of its policies to regulate the sale and use of firearms and ammunition.
The Center points to a 2010 statistic showing that seven out of 10 states with the strictest regulations also the lowest gun homicide rates.
But gun rights advocates opposed to tighter regulations argue that this kind of comparison is misleading. A common rebuttal is that stricter regulations don't do anything to prevent criminals from getting a hold of guns - they simply prevent law abiding citizens from being able to protect themselves. Gun rights advocates also commonly point to states like Maine, which has some of the loosest regulations in the country (it received an F grade by gun control groups) but also has a relatively low gun death rate). They also argue that strict gun laws in cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. have failed to prevent high gun homicide rates.