Trump has also endorsed raising the age limit for purchasing semiautomatic rifles to 21—a move he assured Americans that the NRA would support. Alas, the NRA apparently did not get that memo and has been pushing back rather aggressively. Also skeptical of such a measure is Senator John Cornyn, the number-two ranking Republican in the Senate. Cornyn has publicly cautioned that raising the age limit wouldn’t necessarily save lives, wouldn’t “get at the root of the problem”—and probably lacks the votes to pass the Senate anyway.
The prospects are far less promising for stronger reforms—like a ban of semiautomatic rifles (legislation for which a supermajority of House Democrats are supporting) or restrictions on high-capacity magazines. During the February 21 CNN Town Hall, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said he would consider supporting a ban on such magazines. But as Rubio learned during his past foray into immigration reform, it can be tough to stand up to an outraged party base—which the NRA is exceedingly adept at mobilizing. And during that same town hall, Rubio refused to reject future donations from the gun-rights group. So it seems unlikely he’ll start pushing controversial reforms any time soon—especially during a high-stakes midterm election cycle.
There is, of course, an argument to be made that, with control of Congress on the line this year, members are more vulnerable than usual to reform pressure. Except that midterm races are about motivating the parties’ base voters. Again, the NRA is a master of this—and of waving fat wads of campaign cash under needy lawmakers’ noses. More broadly, legislative fights over new gun laws would be high-profile and contentious. GOP leadership is loath to put its troops in the position of taking awkward votes. Politically speaking, it’s best for members of the anxious majority to keep the reform debates as limited as possible.
Some Republican lawmakers have been upfront about their lack of interest in changing gun laws. Senator Ted Cruz’s quick-draw response to Parkland was to slam Democrats for politicizing the tragedy. Speaker Paul Ryan promptly warned against any “knee-jerk” response from policymakers. Multiple Republicans have been issuing warnings about how Congress shouldn’t rush to pass laws that won’t do any good. “These are feel-good measures that aren’t going to solve the problem,” Montana Senator Steve Daines said this week of efforts to ban bump-stocks, raise age limits, and impose universal background checks. (That last one, of course, is not seriously on the table.)
Republicans have also begun engaging in some political flank-covering, noting that, on a topic this touchy, any reforms will need the full and enthusiastic backing of the president to succeed.
But thus far, Trump’s incoherence on the issue has served only to throw the debate into chaos. One minute he’s talking about arming teachers and touting his love for the “good people” at the NRA. The next, he’s holding a televised sit-down with lawmakers, in which he suggests he’s open to tighter restrictions on assault weapons, opposes the concealed-carry reciprocity part of the Fix NICS Act, wants a more “comprehensive” background-check measure, and ridiculing a GOP senator for being “afraid of the NRA.” His call to “take the gun first, go through due-process second” played especially poorly with Republicans.