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Trump’s new position on gun control is starting to look a lot like the NRA’s

The latest plan: arming teachers, but no age limit for AR-15s.

Donald Trump speaking at the NRA during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Donald Trump speaking at the NRA during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The White House is backing away from the gun control measures President Trump said he would back last month.

The administration on Sunday unveiled its plan to combat school shootings following the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February that left 17 people dead. In the plan: a proposal to arm teachers. Not in it: a proposal to raise the age limit on buying certain assault rifles from 18 to 21.

Trump calls on states to pass “risk protection orders” that allow law enforcement to take guns away from individuals they see as a threat to themselves or others, and pushes for Congress to pass two pieces of legislation on background checks and violence prevention programs.

The president is renewing his support for arming teachers and other school employees as well.

The White House will also create a federal task force to be led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that will examine possible solutions for improving safety in schools — but the commission has no deadline for its findings.

“Far too often, the focus has been only on the most contentious fights, the things that have divided people and sent them into their entrenched corners,” DeVos said on Sunday. “But the plan that we’re going to advance and talk about is a pragmatic plan to dramatically increase school safety and to take steps to do so right away.”

Remember that gun control meeting in February? Trump apparently doesn’t.

President Trump in a meeting with lawmakers less than two weeks ago expressed openness to a lot of gun control measures that had Democrats cheering — while remaining rightly skeptical of his declarations.

He expressed openness to raising the age for buying certain assault rifles to 21, supported a background check proposal from Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) that has twice failed in the Senate, and even seemed to express support for an assault weapons ban proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). He said law enforcement should take firearms from individuals deemed dangerous and then go to court. “You’re afraid of the NRA,” he told Toomey when he said his bill didn’t address changing the gun purchase age limit.

But that Trump appears to have left the building. His administration’s proposal is aiming at more low-hanging fruit:

  • The president will call on states to pass “risk protection orders,” temporary, court-issued orders that allow law enforcement to remove firearms from individuals who are a threat to themselves or others. They also prevent such individuals from buying new guns.
  • The president will urge Congress to pass the Fix NICS Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Chris Murphy (D-CT). The legislation seeks to strengthen background checks by punishing federal agencies that don’t submit criminal records to the national criminal background check system for firearms and by giving states financial incentives to report.
  • Trump is also backing the STOP School Violence Act, which doesn’t address guns but provides an annual grant to schools for “evidence-based” training programs and revamped reporting systems.
  • The administration will work with states to provide “rigorous firearms training to specially qualified volunteer school personnel.” It will use existing Justice Department funding.
  • The White House will focus on increasing the “integration” of mental health primary care and family services and support programs that use court-ordered treatment.
  • The administration will conduct a full audit and review of the FBI tip line.

The Justice Department on Saturday also formally submitted a rule to ban bump stocks, devices that can turn high-capacity rifles into automatic weapons. The rule would take months to implement if implemented at all, as there is debate as to whether the president can act on that front without Congress.

There’s a lot Trump isn’t doing

Trump isn’t endorsing the Toomey-Manchin proposal that would extend background checks on gun purchases made online. He certainly isn’t calling for an assault weapons ban, and he’s backed off from raising the age limit to 21.

When asked by reporters on Sunday about Trump’s change of tune, administration officials said the president wants Congress to “act now,” without obstruction. They said the age is a “state-based discussion going on right now” and something the commission will look at.

When asked about the president’s February comments that his administration was going to “work on getting the age up to 21 and 18” and that it “doesn’t make sense” that handguns can’t be bought until 21 but assault weapons can, DeVos in an appearance on Today on Monday demurred. “The plan is really the first step in a more lengthy process, and the proposals that the president has put forward really encompass a lot of things that are supported on a broad bipartisan basis in Congress,” she said. “Everything is on the table.”

Trump defended his administration’s proposals in a string of tweets on Monday.

Of avoiding changing the gun purchase age limit, Trump said he is watching court cases and rulings before acting. The National Rifle Association on Friday sued to block part of a Florida gun law that would raise the age limit to buy firearms to 21 just hours after the legislation was signed.

Trump said on Twitter on Monday that there was “not much political support (to put it mildly)” for raising the age limit. A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 82 percent of Americans support requiring a person to be 21 to purchase an assault-style weapon, and 81 percent support requiring a person to be 21 to buy a gun. A separate SurveyMonkey poll found that three-quarters of Americans across all age groups support setting a minimum age of 21 to buy an AR-15 style rifle.

It’s not clear whose “political support” Trump believes is lacking on the age limit issue. Perhaps from the NRA — the president met with the group at the White House on March 1, the day after his White House meeting with lawmakers.

Giving teachers guns is probably a bad idea

Administration officials on Sunday said that the Justice Department will provide assistance to states to help partner with state and local law enforcement to provide firearms training with school personnel. In other words, they’re going to give guns to teachers and hope it helps.

The proposal propels the narrative that a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun — a narrative that is probably wrong. As Vox’s German Lopez recently pointed out, there is no good research on the effect of arming teachers or the effect of putting more armed police or security in schools. And based on the evidence we do have, there’s enough to suggest that putting more guns in schools could actually make gun violence worse. The problem in the US is that there are so many guns in circulation, which makes it easier for conflict to escalate to gun violence. More guns are likely to make the problem better, not worse.

Today’s Savannah Guthrie on Monday asked DeVos for specifics on the idea to arm teachers, and she repeatedly hedged on giving definitive answers. She said she did not have a “percentage” in mind for how many teachers would need to be armed to be effective in boosting security but didn’t believe teachers in every classroom or every grade should have guns.

“The point is that schools should have this tool if they choose to use the tool,” DeVos said. “Communities should have the tools, states should have the tool, but nobody should be mandated to do it.”

Trump on Monday took a more aggressive tack and on Twitter said that arming teachers and guards would serve as a “deterrent.” He suggested that schools that are gun-free zones are an “open invitation” for shooters to enter.

DeVos’s commission will gather various stakeholders to discuss potential solutions. It has no deadline for its findings.

As for the school safety commission, DeVos said on Sunday in a call with reporters that she would bring together a “wide array” of education practitioners “to help identify best practices and solutions that are working in communities and states across our country.” She said they would focus on identifying risks early on, starting with social and emotional well-being and increased access, consistency, and transparency in mental health services.

It’s unclear when the commission will act. Senior administration officials said the matter is “urgent” but that there’s no deadline that would “prevent it from being a deliberative process.” An official said the public would “certainly see responses in under a year” for the commission’s recommendation.

At a rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday, Trump mocked “blue-ribbon committees” that do nothing but “talk, talk, talk,” specifically referring to committees on opioids and drugs. When asked about why Trump thinks such committees are a bad idea for drugs but a good one for school safety, a senior administration official responded, “Why focus on a commission for this issue?”

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