Just over a week since mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Senate Republicans are waiting to see if President Trump walks away from the issue again or forces their hand before trying to do anything about potentially expanding background checks for gun purchases.
He’s walked away before. Following the Parkland school massacre last year, the president promised that he was “going to be very strong on background checks,” only to retreat after holding private meetings with National Rifle Association officials at the White House. The NRA, a key ally of Trump’s, has spent big money lobbying against background-checks expansion legislation, and last week reminded him of its staunch opposition.
After the latest shootings, Trump told reporters that there is great “appetite” on the Hill to finally get something done on background checks but his GOP allies in the Senate are holding off, unwilling to burn political capital with the gun lobby and conservative-base voters on the issue if Trump isn’t going to burn some of his.
However, the president’s prior inaction, and the media coverage he incurred for it, may force him to make at least a slightly harder run at background checks this time around, even if only in his messaging and bluster. Two people who’ve spoken to the president in recent days say that he has referenced, during conversations about how he could possibly bend the NRA to his will in this case, his annoyance at media coverage of his post-Parkland about-face that suggested he was all talk and no action on the issue, and easily controlled by the NRA. One of the sources noted that Trump’s aversion to being seen as “controlled” by anyone or any organization makes it much more likely that the president will dwell on the issue for longer than he did last year.
Trump’s influence could well make or break legislation, since Republicans are unlikely to support anything without his blessing but will be just as hesitant to immediately reject a bill he puts his full support behind.
“Many Hill Republicans are waiting to see what Trump will get behind,” said a Senate GOP aide. “He gives them political cover. I don’t think you’re going to see any one bill or one proposal get any momentum until the President publicly endorses it.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on Thursday that he and the president are actively discussing possible avenues for gun legislation. “He’s anxious to get an outcome and so am I,” said McConnell on a radio show in Kentucky.
The GOP leader stressed that the president was open to a discussion on gun legislation, from background checks to “red flag” bills: “Those are two items that for sure will be front and center as we see what we can come together on and pass.”
A spokesman for McConnell declined to elaborate on the Senate leader’s conversations with the president.
Democrats aren’t holding their breath, given that McConnell won’t call the Senate back from its recess for gun bills and that Trump has backtracked before on the issue after outcry from pro-gun factions of his base.
Democratic aides have been mindful of Sean Hannity’s reaction to the background checks push, since Trump’s position has been known to change based on the broadcasts or private counsel of Hannity and other top Fox personalities.
White House aides are similarly waiting on Trump, and talking up how he’s also been reaching out across the aisle to find a potential solution, even if nobody knows what that would look like yet. “The president has been actively talking to Republicans and Democrats on the matter of background checks, and just being able to have meaningful, measurable reforms that don’t confiscate law-abiding citizens’ firearms without due process, but at the same time keep those firearms out of people who have a propensity toward violence,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s White House counselor, said on this week’s Fox News Sunday.
One of those Democratic politicians, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), said in a call with reporters on Wednesday he had spoken to the president twice since the shootings in Dayton and El Paso and that he was “committed to getting something done.”
While “everything is on the table,” Manchin said, Trump’s sign-off on any plan will be key to getting it through the Senate. The proposal introduced by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Manchin in the months after the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary made modest adjustments to background check system by extending checks to gun shows and internet sales, but exempted gun transactions between friends and family members. It also provided additional funding to states to put critical information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in order to prevent people who should not have guns from obtaining them, and created a commission to study the causes of gun violence.
It’s a bill that’s failed twice, once in 2013 and again after the mass shooting in a San Bernardino office park in 2015. Both times it drew very limited support from Republican senators.
Asked what had changed since the last time the bill failed on the Senate floor, Manchin said, “The political will wasn’t there.”
Manchin said he was told by some colleagues who opposed the bill that they really didn’t object to the substance of the bill but they weren’t convinced the “Obama administration wouldn’t go further [and try] taking more of their guns away from them.”
Manchin said he tried to explain that would be unconstitutional, but to no avail.
Some Trump allies say that this president, given his record and rhetoric, might have just enough credibility among Second Amendment enthusiasts to drag them along, if he so chooses.
“If only Nixon could go to China, then maybe only Trump can address the chasm between gun owners and those who want gun control,” Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser, told The Daily Beast. “He’s so strong on the Second Amendment he can truly do something to make a change when it comes to these mass shootings.”
Caputo, who in 2013 and 2014 advised Trump on pro-gun voters and the NRA when the celebrity businessman was weighing a run for New York governor, said that even years ago, “We talked about mass shootings and what that means to the United States, and the importance [to voters] of the Second Amendment, and I know the president has been thinking about this issue for a long time: How you balance gun rights versus gun atrocities.”
Trump’s former adviser added, “If the president pursues broader background checks… perhaps it’s because he knows that is something only he can do. He may lose the support of some of the most pro-gun members of his base, but the vast majority of us understand there are some reasonable measures to be taken.”