President Donald Trump on Wednesday muddled the debate on guns and how best to respond to the recent mass shooting at a high school in Florida, as in a meeting with lawmakers from both parties at the White House, he readily embraced a series of gun proposals that have drawn the support of Democrats, and the opposition of many Republicans and the National Rifle Association.
“I’ve been here for a little bit than a year, what surprises me more than anything else is that nothing has been done for all these years,” the President told members of both parties as they discussed how best to respond to the recent school shooting in Florida.
“For the last twenty years, nothing has happened,” Mr. Trump said. “So we’re going to get it done.”
What exactly did the President embrace, and why were Republicans caught so off guard?
1. Trump wants a ‘comprehensive’ response. Up until Wednesday, the White House had said the President was backing two bipartisan pieces of legislation that were not sweeping in any sense of the word – a bipartisan “Fix NICS” plan to add more information to the instant background check system, and a plan to funnel $50 million a year to schools for added security. But at this meeting, the President threw his support behind the controversial Manchin-Toomey plan to expand background checks to most private gun sales, raising the purchase age for many firearms to 21 years old, endorsed new red flags in the background check process on domestic violence, and even supported measures to take guns from people who might be considered a threat to commit violent acts. The Trump plans horrified some gun rights supporters.
2. Getting tough on guns and the mentally ill. The President has made no bones about his desire to keep people from having guns if there are questions about the mental health of that person. During the meeting, the President even interrupted Vice President Pence to make that point. “Or, Mike, take the firearms first and then go to court,” the President said, making very clear he was more interested in action by law enforcement first, not when after someone who was mentally ill had committed a terrible shooting. “Take the guns first. Go through due process second,” the President added. That did not get a fond reception in Congress. “We’re not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the President talked to today doesn’t like them,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE). “This is not due process in a free society,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI).
3. It wasn’t the NRA’s best day. If lawmakers have whiplash, one must imagine that the National Rifle Association leadership – after having lunch with the President at the White House on Sunday – might have wondered what was going on at the White House on Wednesday. The NRA strongly opposed the Manchin-Toomey background checks bill in 2013. The NRA opposes the idea of raising the purchase age to 21 for certain weapons. While the President did not endorse an assault weapons ban, gun rights supporters certainly did not like the President’s words about seizing guns without much in the way of due process in court, as the President repeatedly said he wasn’t afraid to take on the NRA. “Some of you are petrified of the NRA,” Mr. Trump said at one point in the meeting.
4. Trump stuns GOP on refusal to include conceal carry plan. When Republicans in the House approved a “Fix NICS” bill in 2017, they made a late move to add another bill which allows people with a state-issued concealed carry permit to have that permit work in other states, no matter what the laws are in that state. When Mr. Trump signaled his strong support for the “Fix NICS” bill in this meeting, he made clear that he likes the version that doesn’t have the concealed carry language attached. Two times it was brought up by GOP lawmakers, two times the President said no. “If you’re adding concealed carry to this, you’ll never get it passed,” Mr. Trump told GOP lawmakers, even as he said he supports the idea.
5. Democrats butter up the President on guns. As Democrats realized that they weren’t going to be in a dogfight on television with President Trump, several said he was the key to getting something done. “You can do this,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL). “Mr. President, it’s going to have to be you that brings the Republicans to the table on this,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), as he urged Mr. Trump to take on that leadership role. “It’s time that a President stepped up,” Mr. Trump said, as he repeatedly urged action on guns, and background checks.
6. Will anything really happen from this meeting? It only took a few minutes to realize that this bipartisan gathering was much like one on immigration earlier this year, where the President alarmed Republicans by saying he was open to plans on DACA and illegal immigrant Dreamers. Then, after an intervention by more conservative lawmakers and staffers at the White House, the President changed course. The same thing could happen here as well. Lawmakers in both parties know that.