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The well-rehearsed cycle of mass shootings in America, followed by calls for gun control and ultimately stalemate in Congress, may be all that unfolds in the wake of last weekend’s massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
But conditions exist for an alternate scenario to play out.
A growing number of congressional Republicans are speaking out for reform, and bipartisan alliances in the Senate are working on proposals. President Donald Trump, an ally of gun rights advocates, has also voiced support for certain gun measures. And the National Rifle Association, while still powerful, is facing internal challenges.
Polls show overwhelming public support – including among Republicans – for expanded background checks and so-called red flag provisions that would restrict access to firearms when people are deemed dangerous. For Mr. Trump, there’s also a political incentive: He could benefit by signing a measure that would play well in suburban battlegrounds.
“The White House is desperate for bipartisan victories,” says former GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida. “The president has the strong support of his base – and that’s it. If he gets a mainstream Democratic opponent, that won’t bode well for him. This is an opportunity.”
The cycle of mass shootings in America, followed by calls for gun reform and ultimately stalemate in Congress, is well-rehearsed. And chances are, that cycle will repeat in the wake of last weekend’s back-to-back massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
But the conditions exist for an alternate scenario to play out.
A growing number of congressional Republicans are speaking out for reform, and multiple bipartisan alliances in the Senate are working on proposals. President Donald Trump, an ally of gun rights advocates, has also voiced support for certain gun measures since the latest shootings. And the National Rifle Association (NRA), while still powerful, is facing internal turmoil and financial challenges.
Furthermore, polls show overwhelming public support – including among Republicans – for certain gun measures, such as expanded background checks and so-called red flag provisions that would restrict access to firearms when people are deemed dangerous. For Mr. Trump, there’s also a political incentive: He likes to be seen tackling problems, and could benefit by signing a measure that would play well in suburban battlegrounds.
In short, it could be a “Nixon in China” moment – a reference to how the 37th president was politically able to visit China only by first establishing his bona fides as anti-communist.
The potential for Mr. Trump to have such a moment on guns is “absolutely” there, says Ryan Clancy, chief strategist for the centrist group No Labels. “He has credibility among people who support gun rights that a Democratic president might not have. The big question is, will he follow through?”
Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, a moderate Republican, also sees the potential for action on guns.
“Politically, the White House is desperate for bipartisan victories,” says Mr. Curbelo. “It’s obvious from polling throughout the country that the president has the strong support of his base – and that’s it. If he gets a mainstream Democratic opponent, that won’t bode well for him. This is an opportunity.”
In the past, Mr. Trump has often seemed amenable to gun reform, Mr. Curbelo adds. “He has expressed it in the past – only to allow the NRA to veto him,” he says. “This time can be different. It’s his choice to do the right thing or to cave to a segment of his political base.”
Yet some observers push back on the idea that Mr. Trump can rest easy with his supporters on the gun issue, even now. The president didn’t come into politics as a vocal supporter of gun rights, and he has a complicated relationship with guns.
“He was never pro-gun before he was president,” says Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist and president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association.
In one way, Mr. Trump is at odds with a key portion of his pro-gun base – hunters.
“I’m not a hunter and don’t approve of killing animals,” Mr. Trump tweeted in 2012. “I strongly disagree with my sons who are hunters.”
He has repeated that sentiment since becoming president. Yet Mr. Trump has owned handguns. In 2012, the future president acknowledged in an interview with The Washington Times that he had a concealed-carry permit and owned guns.
It’s not clear if he still owns guns; the White House does not discuss this. Chris Ruddy, CEO of the conservative Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of Mr. Trump, says that he was never aware of him carrying a gun, pre-presidency, nor has Mr. Trump ever shown him a gun that he owned.
“President Trump has a more nuanced view on the gun issue than most people believe,” Mr. Ruddy tells the Monitor. “Before he was running for office, he was typical of many people in New York that didn’t like the idea of a complete, unrestricted ownership of guns.”
But “over time,” Mr. Ruddy adds, “he’s gotten closer to that issue and been an advocate for Second Amendment issues.”
As for the NRA, Mr. Feldman doesn’t believe the gun organization would ever “unendorse” him.
“Can he push the NRA around? A little bit,” he says, noting that the Trump administration eventually enacted a ban on bump stocks despite pushback from the NRA.
Such devices, which make semi-automatic weapons fire continuously, were used by the shooter in the October 2017 massacre in Las Vegas. After a delay, the Trump administration announced the ban in December 2018, and it went into effect in March.
Still, discussing the diminished clout of the NRA misses the point, says a Republican strategist with ties to the White House. “The NRA’s strength doesn’t necessarily derive from money,” he says. “The gun community is tightknit – and they’re single-issue voters.”
In Congress, a bipartisan proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to create a federal grant program that encourages states to adopt red flag laws was seen early in the week as having the most promise. In Mr. Trump’s address to the nation Monday morning, it was the one gun measure he mentioned.
But by midweek, the proposal to support red flag laws – which use “extreme risk protection orders” to take firearms away from people ruled by a judge to be dangerous – was facing complications. Democrat Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, declared Wednesday that any red flag legislation must be accompanied by a Democratic House bill requiring universal background checks on gun purchases.
Mr. Trump, for his part, had suggested “marrying” background check legislation with immigration reform in a tweet Monday morning, but dropped the idea in his televised address. On Wednesday morning, he declared to reporters “a great appetite” by both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill for background checks, though by day’s end, that did not appear to be the case. He also dismissed the possibility of an assault weapons ban.
Some gun control supporters still see the failure to enact legislation after the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, massacre – whose toll included 20 first graders – as telling. If that didn’t move the needle, the thinking goes, nothing will. But one expert pushes back.
“This whole idea that these children were killed at Sandy Hook [Elementary School] and nothing changed is just wrong,” says Kristin Goss, a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University and author of books on gun policy. “A lot changed, but it’s changing slowly and largely outside the media spotlight.”
Since Newtown, gun control groups have grown in number, membership, and financial clout. “There’s just a lot more money, which matters,” Ms. Goss says. “We decry all this money in politics, but it’s also opened up spaces for the gun violence prevention movement to play a role in electoral politics.”
Even the partisan divide on firearms could be helpful to the movement, she says. “That, in a way, creates space for it to become a major campaign issue,” she says. “Democrats in particular ... are more likely to make it a marquee issue – to run on it instead of running from it.”
But that analysis also suggests no major legislation before the 2020 elections, especially if there’s no push for compromise by the three top political players – Mr. Trump, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader.
“Particularly leading up to an election, sometimes you’d rather have the issue than the solution,” says a veteran Republican congressional aide.
Still, with each massacre, the outcry grows. GOP Rep. Mike Turner, who represents Dayton and whose daughter was close to the shooting, now supports new gun restrictions. Another Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, also raised his voice for the first time, calling for more limits on access to firearms.
Mr. Ruddy, Mr. Trump’s friend, sees potential movement by the president on this issue.
“I have to think – and he hasn’t talked to me on this – that at some point in the future he will see some pathway for some limitation on semi-automatic weapons being easily available,” Mr. Ruddy says. “How that might take form, I don’t know. But I do think he might see some limitations and more appropriate background checks.”