clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump’s sudden push for a possibly doomed background check bill, explained

There’s reason to be skeptical anything will happen soon.

President Donald Trump speaks to the media while flanked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the US Capitol in March 2019.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After two mass shootings last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump agree on something: They want a bipartisan background check bill to pass Congress. But the looming question is whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will agree — and whether it will happen before Trump changes his mind.

In comments to reporters Friday morning, Trump boasted he could get Senate Republicans behind a bill strengthening background checks for gun sales, and that his supporters would get on board as well if he told them to. (The NRA, for one, does not support an enhanced background check bill.) Trump said he had spoken to McConnell and claimed the Senate Republican leader is now “totally on board” with passing something.

If Trump’s version of events is true, that would certainly be an about-face for McConnell, who has so far refused to take up a universal background check bill the Democratic-controlled House passed earlier this year. Interviewed on a Kentucky radio station on Thursday, McConnell said both he and Trump are “anxious to get an outcome” on gun legislation.

McConnell suggested a bill to expand background checks to all gun sales would be “front and center” of the Senate’s legislative agenda when it comes back from summer recess. The Republican leader also didn’t rule out the idea of discussing an assault weapons ban. But a McConnell spokesperson told the Washington Post the leader isn’t backing any specific legislation. The spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment from Vox before publication time.

As voters around the country call for urgent action on gun control, it’s worth noting McConnell is talking about these conversations happening about a month from now, when lawmakers return from their August recess. Pelosi has already appealed to McConnell to bring the Senate back from recess to vote on the universal background check bill the House passed in February, but he’s shown no signs of doing so yet.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also want a firm commitment for a vote from McConnell, rather than him alluding to possible discussions on gun control a month from now.

Schumer and Pelosi have seemingly both been trying to get to McConnell through President Donald Trump. The White House was previously opposed to the House’s bipartisan background check bill, and McConnell has been hesitant to take up any bills the president doesn’t support.

Each Democratic leader talked to Trump on Thursday afternoon and said the Senate should take up the background check bill.

“The President gave us his assurances that he would review the bipartisan House-passed legislation and understood our interest in moving as quickly as possible to help save lives,” Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement Thursday night.

On Friday morning, Trump told reporters he thought he could persuade Republicans to support a strong background check bill. That could be a tough sell; Trump has pushed Senate Republicans to support policy ideas before like securing funding for his border wall in exchange for concessions on immigration reform — only to walk away from a deal at the last minute.

So time is of the essence, and lawmakers still have a few more weeks before they return to Capitol Hill.

What the background check bill does

The universal background check bill that Pelosi and Schumer want McConnell to take up passed the House back in February. This bill would close a large loophole that allows private, unlicensed gun sellers to sell or gift guns without a doing background check.

Current federal law means that licensed firearms dealers must run a background check to make sure a potential buyer doesn’t have a criminal record, history of mental illness, or any other factor that legally bars someone from buying a gun.

But while this law extends to gun shops or any other licensed dealer, it doesn’t touch private gun sales. As Vox’s German Lopez wrote, that includes situations like when “someone who doesn’t run a licensed gun shop can sell or gift a firearm at a gun show, over the internet, or to friends and family without verifying through a background check that the buyer isn’t legally prohibited from purchasing the weapon.”

The House’s universal background check would close this loophole, and the measure isn’t as controversial as you might think. As Lopez wrote, this measure is popular among gun owners and voters of both parties. But it’s faced substantial opposition from Republicans in Washington:

For years, the proposal — for universal or comprehensive background checks — has been the top item on gun control advocates’ wish list. It polls extremely well among gun owners, people who don’t own guns, Democrats, Republicans — basically everyone. And it certainly makes sense: If there’s a loophole that potentially lets criminals get guns, why not close it?

Yet the House proposal faces tough odds in the Senate, which is controlled by Republican lawmakers who have been much more reluctant to approve any gun control bills — despite widespread support for universal background checks among GOP constituents. President Donald Trump’s administration has also come out against the bill.

After the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, Trump at least seems to have changed his mind. Will Senate Republicans follow suit?

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.