Gun-control advocates feel closer than they have in years to meaningful reforms. But President Trump appears as unpredictable as ever on the issue, and this weekend’s TV politicking didn’t seem to indicate that there’s consensus coming soon.
After a phone call with Trump on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said they delivered the president a terse ultimatum.
“This morning, we made it clear to the president that any proposal he endorses that does not include the House-passed universal background checks legislation will not get the job done, as dangerous loopholes will still exist and people who shouldn’t have guns will still have access,” they said in their joint statement.
And in an interview Sunday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway wielded Beto O’Rourke’s “hell, yes” debate moment in support of an assault weapons ban in dismissing the idea of major reform.
“We’re not going to allow bad actors who should not have firearms in the first place to be the excuse for a bunch of liberals and socialists to confiscate firearms from law-abiding citizens who have legally procured them,” Conway said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Last week, House Democrats charged in front of an issue that fueled the party in the 2018 midterms. The House Judiciary Committee advanced a slate of gun measures, including enhanced background checks; a ban on large-capacity gun clips; and a bill to provide grants to cities and states that enact “red flag laws,” which are designed to keep weapons out of the hands of people feared to be a danger to the public or themselves.
The magazine ban won’t go anywhere in Mitch McConnell’s Senate, but proposals for a federal red flag law and enhanced background checks maintain bipartisan support — especially after the Odessa, Texas, shooter obtained a long gun through a private sale after previously failing a background check at a gun store.
“We need to deal with that issue,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told VICE News while walking underneath the Capitol last week. “I think we can make some progress on background checks to deal with situations like that.”
Making “progress” is far from getting a bipartisan measure signed into law, though, and the president remains the power broker. He’s backpedaled after calling for stricter gun laws before. Last week, VICE News revealed that a former gun lobbyist was playing a key role in advising the White House on gun control.
“I think we can make some progress on background checks to deal with situations like that.”
Legislative ultimatums from Schumer and Pelosi may make the uphill climb of passing any gun measure even steeper. That’s why some rank-and-file reform advocates have been working at quiet diplomacy with the president.
Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) are the lead sponsors of the background check bill that hit the Senate floor in 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 20 first-graders. That proposal — known as the Manchin-Toomey bill — would have expanded the nation’s current background check system to include the internet and gun shows.
“It’s the most sensible gun-sense bill that we’ve ever had, because it doesn’t threaten anybody,” Manchin told VICE News at the Capitol. “It doesn’t threaten anybody. It basically just gives us a chance to make sure we close all the loopholes [on] commercial sales. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Toomey and Manchin all but gave up on their effort in the wake of its defeat six years ago. But they held at least one phone call with Trump last week to discuss the measure. The president didn’t dismiss it out of hand.
“It was a good, constructive conversation,” Toomey told reporters at the Capitol last week. “The president did not endorse any particular bill or any particular approach, but he was very interested, very engaged personally. He asked a lot of good, constructive, thoughtful questions. It was a good conversation.”
Since the recent spate of mass shootings, Toomey and Manchin have teamed up with progressive Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) in their effort to expand background checks. And Murphy senses the politics on guns have changed, especially after Democrats successfully used the issue to win many all-important suburban districts in last fall’s midterms.
“I think Republicans desperately want to vote on a background checks bill,” Murphy told reporters at the Capitol. “I think Republicans are really hoping that Donald Trump will deliver them a bill that they can vote for so that this isn’t an election issue in 2020.”
Murphy believes a background-check expansion has some chance, especially given polling that shows broad public endorsement of such measures. The PEW Research Center last year found that 91% of Democrats and 79% of Republicans supported background checks at gun shows and in private sales. Murphy thinks Trump has taken notice of those sky-high numbers.
“I think he’s totally torn,” Murphy said. “I think he understands where the country is moving.”
Many Republicans also sense an opening. But, again, all eyes are on Trump — especially McConnell's, who’s up for reelection this cycle and who isn’t about to put his neck out for legislation that Trump may veto.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) predicts that if the president endorses gun control, everything on the Hill changes.
“Leader McConnell doesn’t just have to opine on policy, he has to run the Senate floor and manage its time,” Rubio told reporters at the Capitol. “So it’s difficult to move on a bill that’s not going to be signed into law, so I sure think that if he lined up behind something it would make it easier for the leader to bring a bill to the floor.”
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks at the 2019 House Republican Conference Member Retreat Dinner in Baltimore, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)