On an issue as tough for Congress as guns, it’s hard to imagine lawmakers doing much without strong presidential leadership. Republicans in particular will need plenty of political cover if they are to go up against the gun lobby, their traditional ally.
That’s exactly what President Trump seemed to promise them in a freewheeling, televised meeting at the White House on Wednesday. He derided lawmakers for being afraid of the powerful National Rifle Association – while painting himself as a strong leader.
“It’s time that a president stepped up,” he said. Over the course of the meeting with members of both parties, Mr. Trump called for a comprehensive gun bill that would be “very powerful” on background checks, keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, and harden schools.
Most notably, Trump repeatedly suggested raising the age for buying certain firearms to 21 – and even appeared to offer support for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s longstanding crusade to ban assault weapons, prompting a visibly gleeful reaction from the California Democrat.
But after last month’s immigration debacle, when efforts to secure legal status for young, undocumented “Dreamers” failed after the president abruptly switched from a bipartisan stance to a more hardline position, members of both parties are openly wondering if the same will happen on guns.
“My concern is that this is Lucy and the football,” says Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware. He describes Trump’s stance on guns as an “eerie reminder” of his early approach to immigration.
That, too, began with a televised free-flowing meeting with lawmakers of both parties. In that meeting, Trump said he would sign whatever deal congressional negotiators brought him. He would, he promised, “take the heat” on immigration reform.
Yet when a bipartisan deal emerged in the Senate, Trump blasted it and threatened to veto it. In the end, nothing passed.
If the president stands firm this time, he has an opportunity to change history and make a significant contribution to solving America’s long impasse over guns, Senator Coons says. But if he turns “180 degrees” again, he will “lose all credibility” – and his ability to work with Congress will be severely hampered.
“From the Republican point of view, if the president got behind a measure it would be easier for Republicans to say ‘yes,’ ” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina told reporters Tuesday. “Whether he follows through ... I don’t know.”
A GOP House member, Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania, echoed that view: “What did he say ... sometimes you have to take the NRA on? Well, let’s see if that’s what he does.”
The White House is expected to issue guidelines for new legislation by the end of the week, but the NRA is already panning many of the ideas put forth by the president.
While Wednesday’s meeting “made for great TV, the gun-control proposals discussed would make for bad policy that would not keep our children safe,” NRA public affairs director Jennifer Baker said in a statement.
A tipping point?
Unlike last year, when the president relied on special parliamentary rules to unify his fractious party around a GOP-only agenda, this year’s issues – from immigration to guns to infrastructure and spending – will require Democratic support, since any measure will have to clear a 60-vote hurdle in the Senate. Trump on Wednesday boasted that getting to 60 on guns should be “so easy,” but as the failure of immigration reform showed, getting controversial issues through the Senate is an exceedingly difficult needle to thread.
And it’s unclear whether the ground is shifting on the gun debate. Democrats, as well as some Republicans who have taken a moderate stand on the issue, sense a tipping point. They are seizing the moment to re-introduce bipartisan proposals that have failed in the past – most prominently, on universal background checks that would extend to gun-show and online purchases.
Such a bill, authored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia and Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, has never been able to pass the Senate. But supporters are encouraged by the strong public support Trump offered for the measure this week.
“It does feel as though the atmosphere has changed,” Senator Toomey told reporters after the White House meeting. “It does feel to me as though there are members who were not willing to do something in the past, that might be willing now. And I know for a fact that there are individual senators who voted against Manchin-Toomey, for instance, who have told me that they are reconsidering.”
GOP leaders, for their part, are expressing caution. House Speaker Paul Ryan told his conference at their weekly confab Tuesday morning to be “respectful” of each other and continue to “talk through this” and “not be overly aggressive” because members’ districts differ, Rep. Chris Collins (R) of New York told reporters.
In the Senate, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has been pushing a narrow bill with widespread bipartisan support dubbed “Fix NICS.” It provides carrots and sticks to motivate compliance with existing reporting requirements to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Republicans call it a first step – though one of their own members put a hold on the bill.
That political caution is born of experience. In 1994, Democrats famously lost control of both houses of Congress – and while several factors were at play, the “single most important” was the narrow passage of the Assault Weapons Ban, says Patrick Griffin, then-President Clinton's legislative director.
At the time, the Democratic leadership in the House had opposed the ban as too politically risky. They left it to the president and his team, led by Mr. Griffin and then-chief of staff Leon Panetta, to do the heavy lifting to build support. After it passed, rural Democrats took a beating at the hands of the NRA and its voting members. For lack of support, the ban was allowed to expire 10 years later.
“The Assault Weapons Ban would not have happened without Clinton’s aggressive leadership – to his detriment,” says Griffin. “Nothing is going to happen without [Trump] providing the cover for his colleagues, no matter how minimal the bill is.”
A slow and steady build
But for all the conventional wisdom that nothing has changed – or could change – some on the Hill see it differently now.
Instead of rural Democrats on the line, it’s now suburban Republicans in swing districts who may have to worry. Their educated constituents, particularly moms, want action on this issue. The passionate and energized students of Parkland, who visited with leaders in the Capitol on Wednesday, are the voice of a new generation demanding change – and they are at or near voting age.
Unusually, businesses are also cutting their ties to the NRA. This week, two big gun retailers, Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, announced they would not sell guns to anyone under age 21. Dick’s also announced it would no longer sell high capacity magazines or assault-style rifles (Walmart stopped selling rifles such as the AR-15 in 2015). And states are taking steps, such as establishing “red flag” policies to help prevent people who could be a danger to themselves or others from getting guns.
“It’s been a slow and steady build,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut on the Senate floor Wednesday. The senator, a gun-control activist since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in his home state, never tires of reminding people that 97 percent of Americans support universal background checks – while the NRA remains opposed.
Still, nothing will change unless the president leans on his Republican colleagues, say Democrats, who believe Trump’s support for the Second Amendment will make it easier for Republicans to join him.
As Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer put it Thursday: "The $64,000 question is, when the NRA starts coming down on him, will he resist?”