Indeed, President Trump Should Take On the NRA

Indeed, President Trump Should Take On the NRA
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We’ve learned a lot about President Trump this week -- he’s willing to tank the stock market after all; he would run into a gunfight, even without a gun; he wants to execute drug dealers; he’s already hired his campaign manager for a 2020; and he’s not afraid of the National Rifle Association.

Trump is not only unintimidated by the most intimidating force on the right, he appears itching to take it on, declaring the group doesn’t “have power over me.” This is significant, because not only did the NRA spend $30 million to help elect Trump -- triple what it spent to help Mitt Romney in 2012 -- but the organization helped shore up a robust and critical bloc in his unlikely coalition.

Good for President Trump -- he should put his money where his boast is, and take on the NRA. Hell, if he’s willing to take on the Republican Party on tariffs and risk a trade war, battling over background checks seems like a no-brainer. The president loves polls, and he knows gun control proposals are surging in popularity. Background checks on all firearm sales is more than 80 percent popular. So is requiring a person to be age 21 to purchase a gun. Even banning assault-style weapons is polling near 70 percent support, depending on the survey.

Trump clearly appreciates how powerful the moment is -- a seeming shift of what were unmovable plates just weeks ago, a point when potent anguish and anger could soon create political peril for those unwilling to offer solutions. Yet he has chosen many proposals to support, from arming teachers to what he calls “Comprehensive Background Checks” to an age restriction for purchases to even being open to a conversation about an assault-weapons ban. At this point it’s far from clear which ideas he would push for in the face of opposition from gun rights advocates, including the NRA.   

After dining with NRA top brass last weekend, who warned him they would not support an age restriction, the president seems to be trying to keep it alive. On Monday he accused governors of being afraid of the NRA and urged action, even if it conflicts with the powerful group. “If they’re not with you, we have to fight them every once in a while. That’s OK,” he said. “They’re doing what they think is right.”

On Wednesday Trump went further, temporarily turning into a gun grabber -- at least that’s what the headline on Breitbart called him. “I like taking the guns early,” he told a bipartisan group of senators at the White House. “Take the guns first, go through the due process second.” His enthusiasm over Democratic plans had the typically stoic Sen. Dianne Feinstein grinning and practically dancing in her seat.

It was the “Bill of Love” redux, like when they met over immigration a month ago and Trump told Feinstein he would be willing to support a clean bill for Dreamers protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, causing House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to have to jump in to stop him.

As Republican senators grimaced, Trump taunted them, saying there were “petrified” of the NRA and gushed “it would be so beautiful to have one bill that everyone could support. ... It’s time that a president stepped up.”

Unsurprisingly, Republicans were having none of it when they escaped the meeting. Sen. Lindsey Graham warned: If the president has another one of these sessions and he doesn’t follow through — it’s going to hurt him. It’s going to hurt the Republican Party. I’ve seen this movie before. If it ends up like immigration, he’s done himself a lot of harm.”

And the NRA hit right back. “While today’s meeting made for great TV, the gun control proposals discussed would make for bad policy that would not keep our children safe,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “Instead of punishing law-abiding gun owners for the acts of a deranged lunatic, our leaders should pass meaningful reforms that would actually prevent future tragedies.”

Of course Democrats, who don’t believe the president either, jumped. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a statement urging the president to “push congressional Republicans to resist the NRA and support these proposals.”

Yet one gun rights supporter who has worked hard on a compromise to strengthen background checks saw hope in the president’s supportive comments and maintains Trump has the political capital to take a Nixon-to-China path. The day after the meeting, Sen. Joe Manchin said if Trump had been president in 2013, the bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Pat Toomey would have passed because Second Amendment supporters feared its passage would lead to President Obama “taking their guns away.” Manchin said no one believes President Trump is going to take their guns away.

Leaving nothing to chance, or Trumpian whim, the NRA paid another visit to the president Thursday to shut things down. Chris Cox, the executive director of the organization’s Institute for Legislative Action, indicated in a tweet Thursday night that the president may have backed off already:

But this is an opportunity for Trump to provide leadership on a galvanizing issue a strong majority of the country will back him on. It will challenge him to do what he has not yet done: lead lawmakers through a difficult process of compromise. Trump has backed down often -- as he did after his DACA meeting -- and consistently changes his positions. Because he created chaos on health-care reform, largely outsourced the tax reform bill to congressional Republicans and has all but walked away from a DACA fix, Republicans especially don’t trust his commitment to policy-making, let alone a contentious fight with the NRA.

Still, the president wants to do something to mitigate the threat of mass shootings. And with a West Wing melting down in feuds and departures and scandal, the Democrats’ generic ballot advantage surging back up to double digits -- which could portend an electoral slaughter in the midterm elections -- and a Russia probe closing in on the Trump family, an act of political courage would help him and the nation.

To quote candidate Trump, “What the hell do you have to lose?”

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. She is also host of "No Labels Radio" on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel.

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