Is This Time Different?

There’s real momentum for modest gun legislation, but don’t bank on it yet.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio walks out of a meeting on immigration in Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ office on Jan. 25 in Washington.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio walks out of a meeting on immigration in Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ office on Jan. 25 in Washington.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, an auditorium full of impassioned teenagers and parents jeered Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s every word until the senator with an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association conceded he was shifting some of his positions on gun control. Rubio said that he and his Democratic colleague, Sen. Bill Nelson, would try to secure unanimous consent to pass a bill strengthening the federal database for background checks when the Senate returns next week. Rubio also supported raising the age for purchasing long guns from 18 to 21 years old as well as a ban on “bump stocks.” He said he was “reconsidering” his past position against limiting magazine sizes. He also rejected the NRA and the Trump administration’s pet solution of arming and training teachers at schools.

Watching Rubio change these deeply held positions every 10 minutes, it was difficult not to entertain the possibility that this time the gun control debate might be different— even for a crusty congressional reporter who covers a structurally broken system every day. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been more effective keeping the pressure up than any group of gun-safety activists I’ve ever seen. Their activism seems not just to have reached their Republican senator, but also the president.

His tangents about training militias of math teachers notwithstanding, President Trump seems capable of actually budging from the NRA line. On Thursday, he said that he’s talked with senators and congressmen, and “they’re into doing background checks that they wouldn’t be thinking about maybe two weeks ago.” It’s unclear whether he meant improving the reporting that goes into the National Criminal Instant Background Check System, as the NRA-backed, bipartisan Fix NICS Act does, or actually broadening the scope of background checks, an effort the NRA strongly opposed in 2013. He also suggested that he wants to raise the age for purchasing certain long guns—a position the NRA does not support.

The president is key to advancing any efforts in Congress. With lawmakers on recess this week, though, it’s difficult to gauge how widespread these policy shifts are beyond the Florida senators and representatives who have spoken out about the latest tragedy.

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who co-authored with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin the background check bill that failed in 2013 following Sandy Hook, told this Washington Post this week that he sees enough interest from his colleagues to make another run for it. That proposal would have expanded background checks to cover certain private-party transactions, such as those made online or at gun shows. One doubts that Toomey would be willing to raise this, and put many of his colleagues in a difficult spot, without having run it by them.

Toomey’s support suggests there might be just enough movement to tip Congress into a familiar pattern: the Senate is capable of producing some modest legislation that House Speaker Paul Ryan isn’t inclined to call up without the president’s support.

The position that House leaders staked late last year was to tether its version of the Fix NICS Act with the NRA’s No. 1 legislative priority: a national concealed-carry reciprocity measure. The House passed this logrolled gun bill in December, but the Senate has yet to take it up. “Before the vote,” Politico reported this week, “House GOP leaders promised conservatives that they would not decouple the background-checks bill from the concealed-carry language.”

While senators like Rubio are now racing to pass the Fix NICS Act, House conservatives aren’t moving from their position that it should remain linked with concealed-carry reciprocity. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a co-founder and former chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, told Politico earlier this week that the Fix NICS Act “would allow bureaucrats and administrators to take away an individual’s Second Amendment liberties.” If a stand-alone vote on the Fix NICS Act is too controversial for conservatives, how would raising the purchasing age for rifles fly? Expanding background checks to cover private sales? Limiting high-capacity magazines?

Just as with immigration, success or failure is a matter of whether the president is actually committed to advancing any legislation. If he’s willing to provide cover for the changes he claims to be moving toward, that could be enough to get a modest package of reforms on background checks and age minimums to the floor of the House, where Democrats would presumably help pass it. If not, Trump will tack on some disproportionate demand, such as attaching those reforms to concealed carry reciprocity, and he’ll blame Democrats for the failure to get anything done.