Did Trump Really Move Left On Guns? Don’t Count On It
President Trump appeared to change positions on several gun control ideas, but he probably doesn't mean it.
Yesterday, President Trump held a meeting at the White House with Republican and Democratic Senators and Member of Congress and at least appeared to take some positions on gun policy that are radically different from Republican orthodoxy:
WASHINGTON — President Trump stunned Republicans on live television Wednesday by embracing gun control and urging a group of lawmakers at the White House to resurrect gun safety legislation that has been opposed for years by the powerful National Rifle Association and the vast majority of his party.
In a remarkable meeting, the president veered wildly from the N.R.A. playbook in front of giddy Democrats and stone-faced Republicans. He called for comprehensive gun control legislation that would expand background checks to weapons purchased at gun shows and on the internet, keep guns from mentally ill people, secure schools and restrict gun sales for some young adults. He even suggested a conversation on an assault weapons ban.
At one point, Mr. Trump suggested that law enforcement authorities should have the power to seize guns from mentally ill people or others who could present a danger without first going to court. “I like taking the guns early,” he said, adding, “Take the guns first, go through due process second.”
The declarations prompted a frantic series of calls from N.R.A. lobbyists to their allies on Capitol Hill and a statement from the group calling the ideas that Mr. Trump expressed “bad policy.” Republican lawmakers suggested to reporters that they remained opposed to gun control measures.
“We’re not ditching any constitutional protections simply because the last person the president talked to today doesn’t like them,” Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said in a statement.
Democrats, too, said they were skeptical that Mr. Trump would follow through.
“The White House can now launch a lobbying campaign to get universal background checks passed, as the president promised in this meeting, or they can sit and do nothing,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut.
At the core of Mr. Trump’s suggestion was the revival of a bipartisan bill drafted in 2013 by Senators Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, and Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Despite a concerted push by President Barack Obama and the personal appeals of Sandy Hook parents, the bill fell to a largely Republican filibuster.
Mr. Trump’s embrace did not immediately yield converts. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said after the meeting that he was unmoved, repeating the Republican dogma that recent shootings were not “conducted by someone who bought a gun at a gun show or parking lot.” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican, who sat next to the president looking flustered, emerged from the meeting and declared, “I thought it was fascinating television and it was surreal to actually be there.”
But Mr. Trump suggested that the dynamics in Washington had changed after the school shooting in Florida that claimed 17 lives, in part because of his own leadership in the White House, a sentiment that the Democrats in the room readily appeared to embrace as they saw the president supporting their ideas.
“It would be so beautiful to have one bill that everyone could support,” Mr. Trump said as Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and a longtime advocate of gun control, sat smiling to his left. “It’s time that a president stepped up.”
Democrats tried to turn sometimes muddled presidential musings into firm policy: “You saw the president clearly saying not once, not twice, not three times, but like 10 times, that he wanted to see a strong universal background check bill,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota. “He didn’t mince words about it. So I do not understand how then he could back away from that.”
Just what the performance means, and whether Mr. Trump will aggressively push for new gun restrictions, remain uncertain given his history of taking erratic positions on policy issues, especially ones that have long polarized Washington and the country.
[A]t the meeting, the president repeatedly rejected the N.R.A.’s top legislative priority, a bill known as concealed-carry reciprocity, which would allow a person with permission to carry a concealed weapon in one state to automatically do so in every state. To the dismay of Republicans, he dismissed the measure as having no chance at passage in the Congress. Republican leaders in the House had paired that N.R.A. priority with a modest measure to improve data reporting to the existing instant background check system.
“You’ll never get it,” Mr. Trump told Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House Republican whip who was gravely injured in a mass shooting last year but still opposes gun restrictions. “You’ll never get it passed. We want to get something done.”
Mr. Trump also flatly insisted that legislation should raise the minimum age for buying rifles to 21 from 18 — an idea the N.R.A. and many Republicans fiercely oppose. When Mr. Toomey pushed back on an increase in the minimum age for rifles, the president accused him of fearing the N.R.A. — a remarkable slap since the association withdrew its support for Mr. Toomey over his background check bill.
“If there’s a Republican who’s demonstrated he’s not afraid of the N.R.A., that would be me,” Mr. Toomey said after the meeting.
The president appeared eager to challenge the impression that he is bought and paid for by the gun rights group. While calling the membership of the N.R.A. “well meaning,” he also said he told its leaders at a lunch on Sunday that “it’s time. We’re going to stop this nonsense. It’s time.”
You can watch the full video of the meeting, which runs just over an hour, or you can read the transcript:
Or, you can watch a portion of the remarks here:
On paper at least, the things that the President appeared to back during yesterday’s meeting were radically to the left of where Republicans in Congress and nationwide, and most specifically the National Rifle Association, have taken in the past. This includes everything from backing a broadening of background checks to cover sales at gun shows and over the Internet (although Internet sales of guns are already required by law to go through a Federally licensed firearms dealer who will conduct a background check before giving a weapon to a buyer), and other steps such as raising the minimum age to buy any weapon from 18 to 21. At one point during a conversation with California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Trump even seemed open to the idea of a national ban on the sale or purchase of certain so-called “assault weapons,” although he never formally took a position on the issue. He also rejected an idea that has the strong support of the NRA and many Republicans on Capitol Hill that would require states to recognize concealed-carry permits from sister states regardless of what their own laws on the subject might be, telling Congressman Steve Scalise of Lousiana that such a provision would never make it through Congress. While that last point may be entirely accurate, the fact that Trump appeared to be abandoning an idea that many Republicans support, while publicly endorsing ideas that gun rights advocates strongly support. As Politico put it Trump’s remarks had the effect of upending the debate over gun legislation that has been taking place among Senators and Members of Congress ever since the February 14th massacre in Parkland, Florida.
Not surprisingly many Republicans reacted negatively to the President’s remarks:
Senate Republicans say President Trump’s comments Wednesday calling for more ambitious gun-control proposals won’t change the political calculus in their conference, which supports a limited response to the shooting at a Florida high school.
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is leading the GOP response to gun violence in the upper chamber, told reporters after the meeting with Trump at the White House that he still favors a limited approach.
He wants to put a narrow bill on the floor that would give state and local officials more incentive to report relevant information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System known as NICS.
“For me the most obvious place to start is the Fix NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] bill that has 46 cosponsors,” Cornyn said of the bill he’s co-sponsored with Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy(Conn.).
Cornyn warned that the Senate risked a repeat of this month’s failed immigration debate if it tries to draft an expansive piece of legislation.
“I think the best way to start is to start with Fix NICS and then we can see what sort of amendments people that can get 60 votes,” he said.
The narrow approach favored by Cornyn is the strategy that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) effectively endorsed the day before.
Trump surprised lawmakers at a White House meeting Wednesday afternoon when he voiced support for a five-year-old proposal sponsored by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to expand background checks for firearms bought at gun shows and over the Internet.
Hours before, Senate Republicans said it had no chance of passing and wasn’t really on the table.
Trump also reiterated his support for raising the age requirement for purchasing assault-style rifles from 18 to 21 years, dispelling uncertainty on Capitol Hill about where he stood on the question.
GOP leaders at lunchtime Wednesday said that raising the age threshold wouldn’t have enough votes to pass.
“There aren’t the votes there for that,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told The Hill.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who over the weekend indicated support for raising the age for buying rifles, on Tuesday walked back his earlier statement.
Leaving aside the objections raised by these Senators, there are other concerns about the proposals that Trump seemed to endorse yesterday. Not the least of this involved the discussion that took place regarding taking guns away from people who are judged to be dangerous to themselves and others. From the context of the conversations that we saw during yesterday’s meeting, it appears that what Trump is talking about is some variation of the Gun Violence Restraining Orders that James Joyner wrote about in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Under proposals that have been made largely at the state level, family members and/or mental health professionals would have the legal authority to apply to a court to have a temporary order issued that would require someone whose mental stability is questionable to turn over their weapons to police or to the court. One of the major details regarding these orders has been related to due process concerns and the question of whether or not the person whose weapons would be taken away should have the right to a hearing before losing the weapons, or whether the weapons should be taken away on a temporary basis until a court can make a judgment on their mental fitness. At the meeting, Trump said he favored a system that would “Take the guns first, go through due process second.” As James Hohmann put it in The Washington Post this morning, this position raises real due process concerns that are already relevant given the fact that this President has made numerous other public statements that clearly show he has little regard for the Rule of Law. Some Senators tried to walk back Trump’s comments on this point, but at this point, the White House has not clarified the President’s remarks.
For his part, the President had this to say about the meeting this morning on Twitter:
Many ideas, some good & some not so good, emerged from our bipartisan meeting on school safety yesterday at the White House. Background Checks a big part of conversation. Gun free zones are proven targets of killers. After many years, a Bill should emerge. Respect 2nd Amendment!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 1, 2018
So does this mean that Republicans and gun rights advocates should be fearful that Trump has taken a hard turn to the left on gun policy? If the President’s own history is any indication, the answer is no because the President is likely to shift back to where he was in a very short period of time.
As many people have already noted, the meeting yesterday bore a strong resemblance to a bipartisan meeting that the President held on the issue of immigration and the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. At that meeting, Trump appeared to back a broad solution to the DACA program and essentially told the bipartisan group of Senators that had come to the meeting that he would support whatever solution they came up with. Based on those statements, Senator Lindsey Graham and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin got together with others and came up with a proposal they believed would both gain the support of the President and sufficient support in the Senate to avert the shutdown that the government was headed toward at that point in time. When they went to the White House to present their proposal to the President, though, he rejected the proposal out of hand during a meeting in which he infamously referred to immigrants from Africa and other parts of the world as coming from “shithole” countries while saying that he would prefer immigration from nations such as Norway. It was in no small part due to the President’s remarks and his reactions to the Graham-Durbin proposal that we ended up with a government shutdown in January.
More recently, we saw the President change his position on gun issues within days of each other. In his initial response to the Parkland shooting, the President said he was willing to look at some measures that the NRA does not support such as raising the minimum age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21, his statements in the days that followed called that into doubt. Yesterday, he was back to advocating ideas that appear to break with the NRA, but the fact that he’s seemingly changed position so easily so many times indicates that there’s no reason to believe that anything he said yesterday should be taken seriously. Because of this, as I said yesterday, the prospects for Congressional action on guns are as dim as they’ve ever been.