Donald Trump suggested the starting point for gun legislation could be a proposal from senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican. Photo: AFP
Donald Trump suggested the starting point for gun legislation could be a proposal from senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican. Photo: AFP

Donald Trump’s unscripted gun control push puts Republicans on defence

Donald Trump has endorsed comprehensive gun legislation to expand background checks, raise the age limit for purchasing some firearms and keep the mentally ill from obtaining weapons, stunning both sides of the political divide

Washington: Democrats are hoping this time will be different. Republicans are sceptical that anything will change.

On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump once again gathered lawmakers from both parties at the White House to hash out an issue—this time gun violence in the US—that has deeply divided Democrats and Republicans for years.

Trump tried to break the stalemate by stunning both sides. He endorsed comprehensive legislation to expand background checks, raise the age limit for purchasing some firearms and keep the mentally ill from obtaining weapons.

After the days of debate over just how narrow a gun bill would have to be to get through Congress, prompted by the deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school, Trump opened the door wide and Democrats were determined to hold it there.

“You saw the president clearly saying, not once, not twice, not three times, but like 10 times that he wanted to see a strong, universal background check bill," Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said the televised meeting. “I do not understand how then he could back away from that."

Immigration meeting

The White House gathering resembled one Trump held on immigration in early January in which he expressed openness to striking a deal to protect immigrants who’d been brought to the US illegally as children, only to disparage Democrats and reject the prospect of compromise just days later. The impasse was never resolved and attempts to pass legislation failed in the Senate.

Given that experience, Republicans weren’t optimistic.

“I wouldn’t confuse what he said with what can actually pass," John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said after returning to the Capitol from the meeting with Trump. “Everybody’s trying to absorb what we just heard."

Reactions from other conservatives and some Trump allies was more harsh.

“We’re not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the president talked to today doesn’t like them," Republican senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a conservative Trump critic, said in a statement.

On the Breitbart News website, which has championed Trump in the past, the main headline read: “TRUMP THE GUN GRABBER: CEDES DEMS’ WISH LIST."

Trump, though, may be reading a swing in the public’s mood following the 14 February massacre at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 people dead. The teenagers who survived have been making impassioned pleas for action on television, social media and at the White House.

Business approach

In the wake of the shooting, companies including Symantec Corp., Hertz Global Holdings Inc. and Avis Budget Group Inc. and MetLife Inc. all have cut marketing or other ties to the National Rifle Association (NRA), the nation’s biggest lobby for gun owners and manufacturers.

On Wednesday, Walmart Inc. pledged to increase its firearms and ammunition purchasing age to 21, following a similar action by Dick’s Sporting Goods. Dick’s also said it would stop selling assault rifles like the one used in the Florida shooting.

“Thoughts and prayers are not enough" anymore, Dick’s chief executive officer Edward Stack said in a statement. Walmart stopped selling such rifles in 2015.

Trump suggested the starting point for legislation could be a proposal from senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican.

Their bill originally was offered in 2013, after the killing of 26 children and adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Among other provisions, it would mandate criminal background checks on all sales, including private transactions at gun shows and via the internet. It failed to gain sufficient support to advance in the Senate in 2013 and again in 2015.

Combining bills

At the White House meeting, Toomey said it could be merged with a bill sponsored by Cornyn that would close gaps in criminal records captured in the existing federal background check system, gaining Trump’s approval.

“I think it would be a very positive thing, in terms of background checks," Trump said. He said not to worry about achieving the 60-vote threshold to prevent a Senate filibuster because it will be “so easy."

When Toomey told him the legislation didn’t include a provision to raise the age limit to 21 for purchase of semi-automatic rifles, Trump interjected, “You know why: Because you’re afraid of the NRA."

Toomey said afterward that he’s been hearing from lawmakers who didn’t vote for his legislation previously who say they might support it now.

“They have told me they are reconsidering," Toomey said. “That’s not a guarantee of anything, but it suggests to me the atmosphere has changed."

Concealed carry

Trump also rebuffed conservative Republicans in the House, dismissing the proposal from Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the third-ranking House Republican, that would require all states to honour concealed-carry firearms permits issued elsewhere as part of any measure on background checks.

“You’ll never get it passed" if that provision is added to gun-control legislation, the president said, telling Scalise that he should “let it be a separate bill."Trump, who as a candidate had strong backing from the NRA, also said he wants to do more to prevent those who are mentally ill from obtaining a gun and allowing the seizing of weapons from those found to be mentally ill or who are dangerous.

He ended the gathering by telling lawmakers that he’d rather see legislation that’s too strong than too weak.

Political cover

Trump’s support could provide political cover for gun legislation, but House leaders aren’t going to make concrete plans based on the White House meeting, given the lack of results after the similar session on immigration, said a Republican aide, who asked for anonymity to discuss strategy. As with immigration, the House may wait until the Senate can demonstrate that a piece of legislation can get the 60 votes needed there to advance.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, expressed doubt that a comprehensive measure can pass in Congress.

“I think that ideally you could do it all at once; I just don’t think it’s likely," Rubio said.Democratic senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said that he hoped Trump is serious because there was little chance Republicans would support broader gun legislation otherwise.

“I’m worried that this is the beginning of the end of the president’s advocacy on this issue," Murphy said. “But if I’m wrong, we can get something done."

Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, which operates Bloomberg News, serves as a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s advisory board and is a donor to the group. Everytown for Gun Safety advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures. Bloomberg

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