The Senate’s Top Gun Control Advocate Hasn’t Given Up on Trump

And he knows you think he’s naïve.

Chris Murphy speaks from a podium in the Capitol with Chuck Schumer and other senators around.
Sen. Chris Murphy on Capitol Hill in April.
Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy has seen the president’s waffling on his support for expanding background checks for gun buyers in the last week. He has seen the White House go from enthusiastic support to an NRA-pushed backdown and return, again, to guarded consideration of the issue. He has surfed from incomprehensible presidential brain wave to brain wave along with the rest of us. But though he is fully aware that he might be a sucker, he can’t bring himself to stop believing there’s a chance.

“I am skeptical that these efforts are going to bear fruit,” the Connecticut senator, the party’s most vocal advocate for gun control legislation, said in a press conference Friday morning. “I think it’s very hard to negotiate with this White House when the president’s public positions seem to change by the day. And I’m sure there will be some people who say I’m naïve to think we’re going to end up getting a proposal through that will significantly expand background checks and be able to get 60 votes in the Senate. I’m going to try.”

He put the chances of expanding background checks at less than 50 percent. That’s generous.

In the initial days after the shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio, Donald Trump said there was a “great appetite” for expanding background checks. Then the National Rifle Association—which, despite hemorrhaging personnel recently, still employs chief executive Wayne LaPierre, who has Trump’s phone number—began engaging the president in a series of sit-me-downs. Internal White House opponents of additional gun regulations also joined the lobbying efforts. Among them was Office of Management and Budget acting Director Russ Vought. “His concerns, shared by many within the White House,” CNN reported, are “that a background check expansion would gain him few points politically but actively hurt him among his actual supporters.”

So the retreat to airy, industry-sanctioned Actually It’s Mental Health and Video Games stasis began.

At a New Hampshire rally last Thursday, Trump spoke about the problem being primarily a mental health one. On Sunday, he observed that “a lot of people want to see something happen,” then cautioned: “But just remember this: Big mental health problem, and we do have a lot of background checks now.” On Tuesday, he told reporters that “it’s not the gun that pulls the trigger, it’s the person that pulls the trigger,” and warned of a “slippery slope” of gun regulation. “All of a sudden,” he said, “everything gets taken away.”

In another phone call with LaPierre on Tuesday afternoon, Trump, according to an Atlantic report, told the NRA leader that “universal background checks” were, in the Atlantic’s words, “off the table.” Trump on Wednesday denied being so categorical with LaPierre, saying, “We just talked about concepts. Wayne agrees things have to be done also.”

As Murphy tweeted Friday and observed during his press conference, the terminology in the Atlantic report was jumbled. “Universal background checks” were never on the table for the White House. That proposal—like in the House-passed background checks bill—would cover all gun sales, including private, person-to-person transactions. Instead, the White House was, and ostensibly still is, considering expanding background checks but limiting the regulations to commercial sales, like those at gun shows or online. The policy would be similar to the Manchin-Toomey bill that originally came up in 2013, and which its two authors, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, are workshopping once again.

Even if the president were fully back on board, the vacillation we saw this week may have been enough to spook Senate Republicans. Both Murphy and his fellow Connecticut senator, Richard Blumenthal, insisted to me last week that the single biggest factor in terms of moving legislation is a direct endorsement—a consistency, a willingness to spend capital from the president. If he’s sending mixed signals, many Senate Republicans will interpret that as a sign that they shouldn’t walk the plank.

When the Manchin-Toomey vote “failed” with 54 votes in 2013, six short of what it needed to break a filibuster, only four Republicans voted for it. One of them has since lost reelection, and another is deceased. That leaves just Toomey and Maine Sen. Susan Collins as the current Republican senators who’ve voted in favor of expanding background checks in the past.

Who else might theoretically join the effort? Requests to the offices of ever-so-vaguely “gettable” senators like Mitt Romney, Thom Tillis, Martha McSally, Lisa Murkowski, Rob Portman, and Marco Rubio elicited only one response in semi-support of a Manchin-Toomey-style background checks bill: Romney, who told the Salt Lake Tribune editorial board this week that he was “inclined to support” such legislation.

“Very few of them want to go out on a limb without knowing that the president is there to support them,” Murphy said Friday. “The only way that we pass a bill in the Senate is if there is a proposal, with words on a piece of paper, that the president says he’s for, and says it for more than 24 hours at a time.”

In other words, in order for an expanded background checks bill to pass, President Donald Trump would have to do something that he has never done and that he demonstrates no capability of doing. Murphy, trying his best, did explain why he thought Trump doing so would be in the long-term interest of the party, even if it might come with short-term pain.

“I think Republicans are totally flummoxed by this issue right now,” Murphy said, “because it wasn’t so long ago when they could ignore 90 percent of their constituents and feel no impact at the polls.” That’s not the case anymore, he argued, after gun safety was a top issue in the 2018 elections.

“The Republican Party and the gun lobby are just so intertwined and interlocked together; it’s very hard to pull those two entities apart,” he continued. “And so Republicans know they’re on the wrong side of the electorate on this. … It’s been difficult for them to turn this big ship around in open waters. And it may only be that the leader of their party can be the forcing mechanism that can make them do that.”

Again, he’s aware he sounds naïve.