Early this morning, President Donald Trump—perhaps unwittingly—encapsulated the core tension that has consumed much of his first term: He’s a leader perpetually torn between his desire for bipartisan deal making and his overriding fear of losing his electoral base.
Now, on the issue of gun control, the president’s aides suspect, those twin concerns may be irreconcilable.
“Serious discussions are taking place between House and Senate leadership on meaningful Background Checks,” Trump tweeted. “I have also been speaking to the NRA, and others, so that their very strong views can be fully represented and respected.”
Following a pair of mass shootings last weekend that killed more than 30 people in Texas and Ohio, the president is—for the moment—leaning in to an effort to pass new gun laws through Congress. He quickly endorsed the idea of “red-flag” laws that would allow judges to order the removal of guns from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. He has also renewed his periodic (though often fleeting) interest in strengthening background checks, a long-standing priority for Democrats and advocates of tighter restrictions on guns.
Speaking with reporters outside the White House before leaving for fundraising events in the Hamptons, Trump this morning repeatedly said that he wants to impose what he called “meaningful” background checks that would keep guns away from “bad people, dangerous people.”
“I think the Republicans are going to lead the charge, along with the Democrats,” Trump said.
Perhaps most significant, Trump’s movement is causing Republicans on Capitol Hill to shift, creating a new window of opportunity for proposals that have stalled in Congress. In an interview with a local radio station in Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a staunch supporter of gun rights, said a debate over red-flag laws and background checks would be “front and center” when lawmakers return from their August recess next month. McConnell rejected calls to bring the Senate back early, and he wouldn’t commit to passage or even a vote on either issue. But it was significant that the majority leader acknowledged the overwhelming support in public polling for stronger background checks and signaled a genuine desire to pass legislation out of the Senate. “What we can’t do is fail to pass something. By just locking up and failing to pass, that’s unacceptable,” McConnell said. “What I want to see here is an outcome and not just a bunch of partisan back-and-forths, shots across the bow.”
Yet the president, in his tweets and in his comments to reporters, is not vowing an all-out fight with the National Rifle Association, the gun-rights lobbying group that has mobilized both legislators and voters against new restrictions for decades. Trump said he hoped to win over the NRA and its CEO, Wayne LaPierre. “I think in the end Wayne and the NRA will either be there or maybe will be a little bit more neutral,” Trump said. “And that would be okay, too.”
Though hobbled by internal strife and multiple state investigations, the NRA has given no indication it plans to stand down. And Trump’s unwillingness to battle the organization in the past has left both Democrats and his own aides skeptical that this time will be different. “Dems have been down this path before with the president only for the NRA and Republicans to rein him back in, so we’re cautious,” said one Democratic congressional aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid perspective.
Advocates for stronger gun laws are similarly hesitant to cheer the latest developments, even as they argue that the politics around gun control are finally turning in their favor. “It’s clear that President Trump and Mitch McConnell are starting to feel that pressure,” said Robin Lloyd, the managing director of Giffords, the organization launched by former Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. The group today aired a television ad in Kentucky urging McConnell to bring the Senate back into session. “It’s too early to tell how this is going to play out,” Lloyd said in an interview.
Indeed, Trump has flirted with expanded background checks before, only to pull back in the face of pressure from the gun lobby and from conservative voices on Capitol Hill and inside his own White House. In February 2018, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, Trump invited students and parents to the White House to discuss gun violence. He used the occasion to tout a plan to arm teachers and coaches (a plan favored by the NRA), but he also made a case for expanding background checks on people purchasing guns. He said that “we’re going to be very strong on background checks. We’re going to be doing very strong background checks.”
It never happened.
If anything, the White House had been moving in the opposite direction prior to last weekend’s massacres in Dayton and El Paso. In February, for example, the White House threatened to veto House-passed legislation that would have expanded background checks.
“Background checks, gun control, and Second Amendment issues are the third rail in Republican politics—as much as abortion is in Democrat politics,” said a senior Trump-administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue more freely.
As for what action might come, the official said, “All available options will be explored. Someone will put together both legislative and executive-actions options, and we’ll see what’s politically feasible on the Hill.”
Trump’s advisers have also pointed out that the shooters in El Paso and Dayton passed background checks, making it unlikely that the House bill would have stopped them.
Trump spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer separately by phone yesterday, and the two leaders said that while they received no commitment from the president, he agreed to review the background-checks bill the House passed earlier in the year. It’s unlikely that bill would win over enough Republicans in the Senate, but there is discussion about reviving the compromise proposal from Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. That bill fell short following the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
As one senior Republican aide put it yesterday, “I think Trump is serious until he sees that his base will lose their minds over it.”
For any significant gun-control measures to pass, the president will need to make a sustained push in private and in public—not just now, but through the lengthy August recess and into September. And based on recent history, both parties have reasons to doubt that will happen.