Trump's Calls for Gun Action Upend Party Orthodoxy
President Trump appeared to endorse a variety of legislative gun proposals in a boardroom-style meeting Wednesday with a bipartisan groups of lawmakers, urging them to take a “comprehensive” approach to the vexing issue.
The president surprised many in the room by advocating for ideas seen as an anathema to conservatives and counter to his party’s orthodoxy, embracing a bipartisan bill to expand background checks beyond the current system and advocating for an increase in the age limit to purchase certain firearms.
While he pushed for armed security at schools, he also advised against attaching concealed-carry reciprocity policy -- a trop priority of the NRA and House Republicans -- to any legislation, noting it wouldn’t pass the Senate. Trump also went so far as to suggest that people credibly determined to be a threat to themselves or others should have their guns seized prior to court authorization.
When Vice President Mike Pence spoke about state “red flag” laws – allowing police to seize guns from those deemed dangerous before they commit a crime -- Trump lamented procedural hurdles in the court system. “By the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due-process procedures. I like taking the guns early,” he said during the hour-long televised meeting. “Take the guns first and go through due process second.”
Lawmakers implored Trump, who had lunch with executives from the National Rifle Association last week, to take the lead on legislation, arguing that he carries unique credibility with his base of supporters. Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who as a congressman in 2012 represented Newtown, where 26 schoolchildren and staff were gunned down, told the president he would need to actively cultivate support among Republicans if he is serious about expanding background checks. "I like that responsibility,” Trump said. “It's time that a president stepped up."
While Trump repeatedly waxed optimistic about lawmakers being able to reach a consensus, the shadow of the immigration debate loomed over Wednesday’s meeting. The president held a similar televised roundtable discussion earlier this year in which he backed a range of proposals to allow children of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, and argued that he would sign anything lawmakers brought to his desk. But just a couple days later, his dismissal of bipartisan plans and denigration of certain countries sparked another controversy and undercut any progress. Earlier this month, the Senate failed to pass legislation and the president blamed Democrats.
Murphy said after the meeting that he believes success on gun control measures is within reach, but emphasized that it would take a sustained lobbying effort from Trump.
“I’m worried that this was the beginning and the end of the president’s advocacy on this issue, but if I’m wrong we can get something done,” Murphy said.
It’s unclear how many Republican votes Trump could sway if his administration makes a full-throated push for a comprehensive gun bill. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the GOP whip, was circumspect after the meeting, saying he’d need to re-familiarize himself with the background-check legislation that failed five years ago. Cornyn has pushed for his own legislation, which would strengthen existing background checks without expanding them, a bill that has some bipartisan support, though many Democrats argue it does not go far enough. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said he likely wouldn’t support expanding background checks unless it was part of a broader package that had other measures he has advocated for.
“For the most part, people are willing to compromise on some things, but on core Second Amendment issues, those are a lot more difficult to change people’s minds because they come here with those beliefs and are usually well formed on them by the time they get elected,” Rubio said.
While the White House meeting was wide-ranging, Trump appeared to focus most on strengthening background checks. Sens. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, proposed legislation in the wake of the Newtown school shooting that would have expanded background checks to gun-show and online sales. The bill failed to garner enough support then, with four red-state Democrats opposing it and only four Republicans backing it.
But sensing a potential sea change in the two weeks since the Parkland shooting, the two senators have revived the bill. And Trump suggested it could serve as the base line for forthcoming legislation, though it wasn’t clear whether he is entirely familiar with the measure or its history. Trump asked Toomey if his bill included an age limit for firearms, and when the senator told him it did not, the president said: “You know why? Because you’re afraid of the NRA.” (The NRA opposed the Toomey-Manchin bill.)
Still, Toomey took Trump’s statements as an endorsement. “This is the clearest I’ve ever heard the president in his support for broadening background checks and strengthening the background-check system and specifically praising Manchin-Toomey as a model of how to do that,” Toomey told reporters following the meeting, calling it “very encouraging.”
Gun rights groups have opposed that measure, as well as calls for increasing the age requirements to purchase guns. Some Second Amendment advocates have said they felt “betrayed” by Trump’s evolving positions on firearms, and say it will stoke their constituencies to vote in November. While the president continues to support some changes that gun rights groups have championed, such as beefing up school security and eliminating gun-free zones, he also implored fellow party members to stop being “afraid of the NRA”; he said backing a background-check bill would make lawmakers more popular with voters. “The NRA doesn't have power over me; they have power over you,” he said.
The president also listened to proposals advocated by Democratic lawmakers to ban assault-style rifles, suggesting it could be considered as part of the comprehensive legislation. The acknowledgement pleased Democrats in the room -- California Sen. Dianne Feinstein appeared giddy -- even though lawmakers know there isn’t wide support available in Congress for banning any firearms.
“Was it a good meeting? It was,” Feinstein said. “Whether or not it will last, I don’t know.”