What can you do when populists start, er, populisting? Just hope that they don’t list too far to the Left. Both the New York Times and Politico report overnight that Donald Trump wants to put together a major gun bill in the wake of two mass shootings this month, although just how major remains to be seen:
Mr. Trump on Sunday telephoned Senator Christopher S. Murphy, a Democrat who has been one of the leading voices in Congress for gun control, an indication that the president is interested in pursuing legislation. Earlier in the week, Mr. Murphy had contacted the White House to indicate that he was willing to work with Mr. Trump on the issue, which prompted the call.
The conversation was positive, with Mr. Trump indicating that he was serious about persuading Republicans to act, according to officials familiar with their discussion. And the two agreed to set up a staff-level dialogue this week between their offices and those of Senators Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, who are working feverishly to revive the background check legislation they wrote after the Sandy Hook massacre.
The N.R.A., which opposes gun registration in any form, has for years fought against background check bills, arguing that they “don’t stop criminals from getting firearms” and that some proposals “would deprive individuals of due process of law.” If such a bill passed and was signed by Mr. Trump into law, it would be the first significant federal gun safety law in a quarter-century.
Looks like last week’s salute to “meaningful Background Checks” wasn’t a one-off rhetorical device. Trump didn’t call Murphy just to chew the fat or to pose in public; Trump apparently wants to force Republicans to back the Toomey-Manchin bill that the NRA successfully stalled a few years ago. Another sign that Trump wants action, Politico notes, is the point man Trump has assigned to the effort:
Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). Their staffers have been meeting with Joe Grogan’s Domestic Policy Council and W.H. leg affairs director Eric Ueland. They’ve discussed where Manchin-Toomey legislation stands and what changes have been made. Each senator has also spoken with President DONALD TRUMP privately. The WHITE HOUSE has also had in-person contact with aides to Rep. DOUG COLLINS (R-Ga.), the top Republican on Judiciary.
MULTIPLE PEOPLE INVOLVED IN THE TALKS say Ueland is taking control of the situation — a hopeful sign if you’re looking for progress. We spoke to a number of people on the Hill and in the White House who were hoping this effort is headquartered in the legislative affairs shop, and not captained by the gaggle of other White House officials who try to insert themselves into legislative issues. Ueland and his team have the bandwidth and connections to navigate the Hill.
This could be a strategy of containment by Trump. If takes proactive steps to shift the focus onto expanded background checks, it might take some pressure off of other non-responsive demands such as a new assault-weapons ban or other measures that would infringe more on gun rights. To some extent it’s already working, and Trump knows that voters support the idea of background check changes more than any other measure in dealing with mass shooting incidents. If he stays ahead of that curve, Trump can lead it — or so the theory goes.
On the merits, expanded background checks aren’t terribly responsive either. The issues in most of these shootings involve previous failures by law enforcement to take action that would create the red flags necessary to stop a firearms sale. A less passive form of policing on lower-level incidents might improve matters greatly for the current system of background checks. Another potential improvement would be to actually prosecute those who attempt to buy firearms illegally and get caught by the existing system, a common-sense follow-up on failed background checks which almost never happens.
For those reasons and others, the NRA might not appreciate the nuance of Trump’s strategy. They offered Trump unprecedented support in 2016 on the assumption that he couldn’t get bullied into retreat. Trump is nothing if not transactional, however, as most populists tend to be. What matters to a populist is the current vox populi, not ideological trenches. If the current vox populi says “background checks,” then that’s where Trump will go, especially with all of the incentives of an election cycle now in play. Let’s just hope that the vox populi doesn’t start saying “massive confiscation.”
At this point, gun rights advocates had better prepare themselves for the eventual Rose Garden ceremony, and hope to shape it to keep damage to a minimum.
Addendum: It’s worth noting in the NYT article how Democrats are characterizing their August recess town halls. Voters want action on mass shootings. How many of them are demanding action on impeachment? Thus far, it seems as though voters don’t really care about that, and it will be interesting to see what this cooperative effort does to the impeachment process when House Democrats return.