“You’re scared of the NRA,” President Donald Trump declared in a room of lawmakers Wednesday during a meeting on guns that pushed Republican priorities to the sidelines and had Democrats in the room cheering.
A bipartisan group of legislators met in the White House to try to make headway on gun law reforms in the wake of the deadly shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 dead and injured more than a dozen others.
Throughout the hour, Trump often veered into uncomfortable territory for Republicans and at times broke with his party altogether, reiterating support for policies many in his conservative base have taken issue with.
At one point, he said some in the group were “petrified” of the national gun lobby and sided with Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (CA) and Amy Klobuchar’s (MN) proposals over those of Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Rep. John Rutherford (R-FL).
In the televised meeting, which felt a lot like the freewheeling discussion Trump held on immigration last month, the president called for a bill that was “powerful” on background checks and that would address mental illness and possibly raise the age limit for buying assault rifles from 18 years old to 21. He also repeatedly stated support for beefing up armed security at schools and getting rid of “gun-free zones.”
In all, it was an undeniable call for comprehensive gun control — something Republicans have been wary of touching.
“I like that word, comprehensive,” Trump said. “They say it is a bad word. I like the word. I would rather have a comprehensive bill. ... It would be really nice to create something that’s beautiful.”
Whether this discussion will actually yield legislation — and whether Trump sticks to the positions he supported in the meeting — remains to be seen.
Only last month, many of these same lawmakers listened to Trump publicly support compromise immigration legislation, only to have his administration derail every bipartisan proposal put forward. Trump said he wants to be the president that gets gun reform passed through Congress. It’s not yet clear if that will translate into helping Congress pass a bill.
What Trump said he supports on gun control (for now)
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, Congress tried and failed to pass a bipartisan gun control bill — most of which were extremely narrow proposals. This time, Congress is under mounting pressure to act, and Trump has jumped on the bandwagon of a national movement to address gun laws.
In the meeting, Trump articulated three main priorities for gun control, many of which were in stark contrast with his base:
1) He wants a “powerful” expansion of background checks
Trump supported both the Fix NICS Act, a proposal sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) that would reinforce current laws requiring state and federal agencies to report criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The bill would increase enforcement, step up requirements for federal and state agencies to update records, give states financial incentives to report to NICS, and penalize agencies that don’t upload their records.
He also supported a proposal from Republican Sen. Pat Toomey (PA) and moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) that would expand the current background check system for gun sales at gun shows and online, where transactions between family members, friends, and neighbors go unchecked.
Trump repeatedly referred to Manchin and Toomey’s proposal as a possible “base” to a more comprehensive gun control legislation. This proposal has failed twice in the Senate.
2) Trump called for more robust checks for mental illness — even if it means confiscating guns
“You have to fix mental illness,” Trump said. “If someone is mentally ill, you can’t take it away. They can buy. It is ridiculous. ... I’m sure you’re going to fix it.”
The call was met with some pushback from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who warned that not all people with mental illness are a danger to others. Republicans actually made it easier for people with mental illnesses to purchase guns last year, rolling back an Obama-era regulation that required the Social Security Administration to report mental illness records to NICS.
Conservatives have raised concerns that some agencies can formally declare “mental illness” without due process. But Trump doesn’t appear to have those same due process concerns.
“Take the firearms first and then go to court,” he said. “A lot of times by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due process procedures. I like taking the guns early.”
3) He expressed openness to raising age limits for purchasing certain assault rifles
Trump reiterated his interest in raising the minimum age for purchasing assault rifles — which is a break from the National Rifle Association’s position and an idea House conservatives say is a nonstarter.
Currently, federal law prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from purchasing a handgun from a licensed dealer but allows adults 18 or older to buy rifles.
“People aren’t bringing it up because they’re afraid to bring it up,” Trump said of the policy. “You can’t buy a handgun at 18, 19, or 20. You have to wait until you’re 21. You could buy the weapon used in this horrible shooting at 18. You are going to decide — the people in this room pretty much are going to decide.”
It resulted in this exchange with Toomey:
TRUMP: I’m just curious as to what you did in your bill.
TOOMEY: We didn’t address it, Mr. President.
TRUMP: Do you know why? You’re afraid of the NRA.
TOOMEY: No. I dealt with the NRA five years ago.
At one point, Trump even seemed to express support for Feinstein’s assault weapons ban, telling Manchin and Toomey to add her proposal to the base bill.
Needless to say, Feinstein reacted with glee.
Feinstein's reaction when Trump says she should add assault weapons ban to Manchin-Toomey pic.twitter.com/7dlKxwa1KO— Ryan Struyk (@ryanstruyk) February 28, 2018
Outside of these main points, Trump also repeatedly spoke against “gun-free zones,” calling them the “most dangerous” places in the country, and supported “offensive firepower on the inside” of schools — two issues that are nonstarters for most Democrats.
Trump pushed Republican priorities to the sidelines
What Trump didn’t support in the meeting was possibly more notable.
On multiple occasions, he rejected proposals to include legislation that would allow permits for carrying concealed weapons to cross state lines in this gun control package — something that has been a priority for House Republicans and was part of a version of the Fix NICS bill that already passed in the lower chamber.
“I think that maybe that bill will someday pass, but it should pass as a separate,” Trump said in response to Scalise, instead siding with Democrats. “If you’re going to put concealed carry between states into this bill, we’re talking about a whole new ballgame. You’ll never get this passed if you add concealed carry to this, you’ll never get it passed. ... We want to get something done.”
Trump’s call for comprehensive gun control legislation is a major break from what congressional Republicans have been discussing. After shootings, Republican talking points typically steer away from any actual gun control-related measures, or focus on the narrowest possible provisions.
Already Trump’s position has concerned his conservative supporters in the House Freedom Caucus, many of whom spent the week strategizing alternatives for him. Going down the list, Freedom Caucus members have found issue with many of Trump’s gun control positions, from the Fix NICS Act to the increased minimum purchasing age.
Trump seems confused on why gun control hasn’t passed before
Trump repeated a simple question during the bipartisan meeting on gun legislation: Why didn’t Congress pass gun control after the last shooting?
The president would have to look to many in his own party for those answers. Following Sandy Hook, momentum behind an assault weapons ban fell short of 60 votes in the Senate after losing the support of all but one Republican and 15 Democrats.
Trump had his own explanations for why: He said members were scared of the gun lobby and the news cycle was distracting, and he repeatedly tried to blame Obama, saying his predecessor wasn’t “proactive” on the issue.
“I think it’s time that a president stepped up,” Trump said. “I’m talking Democrat and Republican presidents, they’ve not stepped up.”
Obama repeatedly called for commonsense gun control reforms, including expanding background checks and addressing mental illness. When gun control failed in the Senate after Sandy Hook, he called it a “pretty shameful day in Washington.”
Even Republicans in the room had to correct Trump on Obama’s role in gun control. Here’s an exchange between Trump and Toomey on why his background check expansion didn’t pass before:
TRUMP: Do you have support for that, bipartisan support for what you’re saying?
TOOMEY: We had 54 votes in 2013. Most of those 54 voters are still in the Senate.
TRUMP: And not a lot of presidential backup?
TOOMEY: President Obama did support it.
TRUMP: But that was your problem.
Feinstein also chimed in to say Congress had “tried” to pass gun control in the past.
Until now, congressional Republicans have been reluctant to act on guns, candidly saying the urgency will die down and the policy issue will be pushed to the background. Trump, however, doesn’t seem to care where his party has stood on the issue. He wants to “take the responsibility” of passing gun control — and, in his view, prove he can do what earlier presidents couldn’t.