If Donald Trump wanted to shake up the status quo on politics after mass shootings, he succeeded — perhaps more than his allies thought. Over the last two days, Trump has publicly expressed conceptual support for “red flag” laws and more comprehensive background checks, two types of legislation opposed in practice by Trump’s supporters at the NRA. His declaration yesterday of seeing a “great appetite for background checks” prompted a call from Wayne LaPierre in an attempt to head off a legislative disaster for the gun-rights group:
President Trump has repeatedly told lawmakers and aides in private conversations that he is open to endorsing extensive background checks in the wake of two mass shootings, prompting a warning from the National Rifle Association and concerns among White House aides, according to lawmakers and administration officials. …
NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre spoke with Trump on Tuesday after the president expressed support for a background check bill and told him it would not be popular among Trump’s supporters, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal talks. LaPierre also argued against the bill’s merits, the officials said.
The NRA, which opposes the legislation sponsored by Sens. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), declined to comment.
Trump has floated the idea of supporting the Toomey-Manchin effort before, only to dispense with the idea later. But did that flirtation include plans for a Rose Garden signing?
Trump has focused on guns extensively since the shootings, calling lawmakers and surveying aides about what he should do — outreach that began Sunday evening. White House officials say there has been a series of meetings on a response, convened by acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, including a session Tuesday morning. The president has discussed with aides the idea of a Rose Garden bill-signing ceremony for gun-control legislation, a notion that seems premature to many in the West Wing.
Probably not premature enough for the NRA, which will fight any version of Toomey-Manchin as unresponsive. They won’t be far off, either, because at least for the moment it doesn’t appear that background checks were the issue in these shootings. As with Parkland, the problem at least appears to have been a lack of a legal record that would have prevented sales when background checks were performed. The shooters sent up a lot of red flags, but for now it doesn’t appear that law enforcement took enough action to make background checks effective.
The Washington Post provides an example today of how the current system actually may have prevented a mass shooting. Thanks to a lost iPhone, the FBI nabbed a white supremacist for child pornography, but only after he was prevented from buying weaponry to act on “hunting guides” he had published:
According to federal court records, Gilreath sat for an interview with the FBI on Jan. 24, after agents received a tip that someone had been posting online “hunting guides” targeting Jews, Muslims, refugee centers, Bureau of Land Management offices and Montana National Guard facilities, and linked a document labeled as a “Montana Hunting Guide” to the 29-year-old.
Activists in Oregon and Washington state have warned about such guides, which map the addresses of potential targets for white supremacist attacks. They are also a phenomenon that’s well known to the FBI. Investigators have found that the guides often contain information that can be used to “violently target” people with different ethnicities, religious beliefs and political views, the complaint states.
Court records don’t indicate what transpired at the January interview, and Gilreath was not arrested. Four months later, on May 24, he went to a gun store in downtown Boulder and attempted to buy a firearm, handing over his Colorado driver’s license and filling out the mandatory paperwork from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He was rejected. Afterward, the criminal complaint states, he sent a frustrated text message to his father.
“You’ve permanently ruined my ability to buy a gun in Colo. and other states,” he wrote.
It’s not yet clear what specifically prevented the sale, but something certainly did. It’s also not clear why the FBI didn’t pick up Gilreath after his attempt to illegally buy a weapon, something that rarely happens even with the current background-check system. That’s one complaint from the NRA about Toomey-Manchin and similar legislation — that law enforcement doesn’t follow up now on attempts at illegal purchases, an action that also might save a lot of lives.
The NRA may be barking up the wrong tree. Trump’s not looking for reasons to do nothing — he’s looking for ways to answer the demand to do something. As I write in my column for The Week, Trump knows better than most that he didn’t get elected to do nothing:
Voters may at times prioritize the economy, health care, and immigration as higher policy priorities, but the most urgent business of government is public safety. The more that mass shootings occur, the more they become viewed as potential threats to voters in a personal way, no matter how many statistics show that they’re not occurring on a more or less frequent basis. When voters perceive threats to public safety, they expect office holders to do something, not explain various reasons to embrace futility, even if that something may or may not help the problem.
With a tough re-election fight ahead, Trump wisely chose to address the issue head-on and to reframe it around his own policy priorities. After a strange attempt on Twitter to link gun policies to immigration reform, Trump delivered a statement that focused on unity, bipartisanship, and most notably, the need for action. And he made it clear that despite the mutual support between himself and the NRA, Trump is willing to bargain to do something. …
Action is Trump’s default mode as it is, but this has obvious benefits for his 2020 campaign. Pushing for action puts Trump in position to compete with messaging from his potential Democratic opponents; if Trump gets legislation passed or succeeds with executive orders to advance these ideas, he can claim progress on the issue. It won’t preempt criticism entirely, but he won’t get caught embracing futility — a trap into which his party sometimes falls.
Politically, the status quo is not sustainable in the short term. Trump may see expanded background checks as one of the more benign ways to act in relation to gun rights overall. If the NRA disagrees, they’d better come up with some positive and new action that Trump could take that would mitigate against mass shootings. And they’d better do something fast, especially in light of Lindsey Graham’s sharp observation about Trump:
“He seems determined to do something and believes there is space to get something done this time around,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who said he had spoken to Trump “four or five times” since the shootings. “The president has a pretty common-sense point of view. He’s never been a sports or gun enthusiast. But he is more determined than ever to do something on his watch.”
Do something beats do nothing at the ballot box every time, for better or worse. And Trump knows it.