The Gun Debate Is Dead

Trump’s lack of support for gun control means nothing will move.

President Donald Trump takes part in a listening session on gun violence with teachers and students at the White House on Feb. 22.
President Donald Trump takes part in a listening session on gun violence with teachers and students at the White House on Feb. 22.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

To pass any significant gun control legislation through the United States Congress, President Trump would have had to exert the full power of his office. Trump would have had to twist the arms of his Republican colleagues and burn through significant political capital with his conservative base. So it’s not exactly surprising that over the weekend he backed away from pushing the more ambitious gun reforms that have circulated in Congress since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Without Trump on board, universal background checks and a host of other policies appear to have missed their moment for the millionth time.

“I think we could all see it coming,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a leading Senate Democratic voice on guns, told reporters Monday. “I’ve been skeptical since the beginning that the president and his party were really willing to break with the NRA.” Murphy said that “it will likely take an election where they pay a price for their fealty to the gun lobby” for meaningful action to take place. Don’t hold your breath.

The only real glimmer of hope came in late February, when the president seemed keen on a few pro–gun control policies during a televised meeting with members of Congress from both parties. He supported lifting the age of purchase for all firearms from 18 to 21, and he backed expanding background checks to cover gun show and online sales. He didn’t outright reject a resurrected assault weapons ban, either. Senate Democrats took some of the ideas Trump said he supported and quickly translated them into a legislative proposal, in the hopes of capitalizing on the president’s comments before he could change his mind.

But the president had lunch with top officials at the National Rifle Association just a few days after that meeting, and his willingness to buck the organization has steadily diminished since then. The White House position has been whittled down to support for the Fix NICS Act, a bipartisan bill to ensure better reporting of information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, as well as offering Justice Department assistance for training educators to use firearms and establishing a commission to make recommendations for other reforms. In Washingtonese, this is known as “punting.” The White House also urged states to pursue a policy of restraining orders allowing law enforcement to temporarily disarm those showing signs of danger. (Trump appears to have been convinced, now, that it’s worth securing warrants for such search and seizure instead of “taking the guns first.”)

In tweets on Monday morning, Trump said he was backing off of pushing a raise in the minimum age for two reasons. The first is a lawsuit filed by the NRA after Florida passed a law to raise the age last week. The second is that there is, in his mind, “not much support (to put it mildly)” for the move. Only on gun issues can something with roughly 80 percent public support be described as a political nonstarter. It’s true, though, that there’s not much support for the measure among Republican members of Congress. Trump doesn’t think it’s worth the effort to change that.

Nor does he seem inclined to back a revived Manchin-Toomey bill to expand background checks to cover more private sales. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders wouldn’t say whether the administration supports that bill during Monday’s briefing. But even if she had said the words, there’s a gaping difference between passive endorsement and active advocacy. If Trump didn’t have the stomach for the latter, the former wouldn’t have moved the needle in any meaningful way.

Democrats are not surprised that this president got one quick look at an uncomfortable clash with his base and ran away in a panic. “I haven’t been this shocked since he backed away from his position on DACA,” as one senior Democratic aide told me Monday. Lawmakers on both sides of the issue anticipated this, and Democrats have had their talking points ready since the second Trump uttered his heretical postures in that meeting. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who begrudgingly gave Trump credit last month in an attempt to coax him into following through on those commitments, lashed out at him on Monday for his fealty to the NRA. “Even when President Trump momentarily departs from the NRA’s script,” Schumer said, “he quickly gets reeled back in.”

Because we’re talking about the United States Senate, it’s now a real question as to whether the chamber will even pass a bill that has 64 co-sponsors—four more than the necessary number of votes!—as the Fix NICS Act does. Democrats don’t believe that passing Fix NICS alone is enough of a response to Parkland and have been calling for floor time to debate gun control more broadly. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t agreed to such floor time and doesn’t appear likely to. Once the chamber is finished with its banking deregulation bill this week, it intends to move onto Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s sex trafficking bill and then the omnibus appropriations bill ahead of the March 23 government funding deadline.

Murphy said that he would still push for that wide-ranging debate. He suggested it wouldn’t need to take up too much floor time if the parties could reach a time agreement to do it quickly, line up a handful of amendments, and let the votes fall where they may. But, as one reporter asked him, is McConnell likely to allow that?

“No,” he mouthed.