After almost a week of relative silence on guns after the deadly Florida school shooting, President Donald Trump moved to take action on gun violence Tuesday — without antagonizing his pro-gun base.
It wasn’t by accident that both of the president’s moves — authorizing a crackdown on “bump stocks” and signaling support for a stronger background checks system — are backed by the National Rifle Association. But they would allow Trump, who spent much of the last weekend at Mar-a-Lago watching cable news coverage of the aftermath of the shooting, to say he’s taking action.
It will be a high-wire act for the president in the best-case scenario: Pacifying gun-control advocates without stirring up his core supporters. Even if he manages to pull it off — gun-control advocates will never be satisfied with the background checks bill the White House is getting behind — he’ll have to contend with Republicans in Congress who want to loosen gun control laws, not strengthen them.
“We were all horrified by the tragedy in [Florida],” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), who authored a House-passed bill pairing narrow background checks provisions with so-called concealed-carry reciprocity legislation. The bill, a top priority of the NRA, would allow gun owners with concealed-carry permits in their home states to carry their guns into states without them.
“We must also protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners,” Hudson said, adding he hopes the Senate will pass the bill.
Pro-gun conservatives outside Congress are beating the same drum. Over the weekend, radio host Rush Limbaugh said on “Fox News Sunday” that “the solution is we need concealed carry in these schools.” NRA TV host Grant Stinchfield, in a video after the Florida shooting, argued that “we need more good guys with guns around because seconds count in these situations.”
As gun-control protests ramp up and Republicans dig in, where Trump will ultimately come down is an open question. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that he is open to a range of options, including imposing an assault weapons ban and raising the minimum age limit for purchasing AR-15s.
The White House came under attack late last week and over the weekend for what critics described as a slow-footed response to the massacre at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 people dead. The president was silent on the day of the attack and, in remarks on the shooting the following day, expressed sympathy for the victims and pride on behalf of the first responders, but failed to mention the role that guns had played in the gruesome incident.
Watching news coverage in the ensuing days, Trump was affected by images of impassioned high school students, many of them tearfully calling on federal lawmakers to take action, according to one White House aide. Yet even in times of tragedy, Trump has always been a base-conscious politician — somebody who looks to shore up his most fervent supporters rather than to reach bipartisan compromise.
One White House source told POLITICO that he and fellow administration officials were taken aback by the bump stock announcement. They’d received no heads up, the person said, and wondered privately whether Trump simply wanted to blunt accusations that he wasn’t acting decisively.
Politically, Trump himself has been all over the map on gun control, endorsing an assault weapons ban in 2000 and winning the NRA’s highest rating during the 2016 presidential campaign. His son, Don Jr., an avid hunter, has urged him to “stay strong” and stick to his pro-gun views, according to the Daily Beast.
But the White House on Tuesday gave Attorney General Jeff Sessions a green light to crack down on bump stocks, which are used to turn semi-automatic firearms into automatic weapons, and which helped the Las Vegas shooter take down almost 60 people. Congress had talked about taking action against bump stocks but failed to in the several months since the attack.
Behind the scenes, top White House officials have been gauging whether House conservatives could support background check legislation that does not include their prized concealed-carry provision. They’ve also been reaching out to pro-gun groups to see what could earn their support.
But even if Congress dropped the concealed-carry proposal, the background check measure is incremental at best. It would not have stopped Nikolas Cruz from purchasing the semi-automatic weapon he used to kill 17 students and teachers. And most Democrats say it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
“It’s a good bill and we should pass it into law, but if this is all the White House is willing to do to address gun violence, it’s wholly insufficient,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, the chief sponsor of the background check provision being considered by the White House.
Democrats and gun-control groups are already gearing up to fight any Trump attempt to try to take credit for responding to the Florida shooting by embracing piecemeal, GOP-friendly moves.
John Feinblatt, president of the gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety, said the White House’s reference to possible revisions to the background-check legislation could be “code” for insisting on the poison-pill concealed-carry provision in exchange.
“If Congress fails to act, I think the public is ready to throw them out,” Feinblatt said in an interview, slamming the possible pairing of the background-check bill and concealed carry as “outrageous.”
Elana Schor contributed to this report.
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