President Trump is publicly tiptoeing toward support for gun control measures that could put him at odds with the National Rifle Association.
At a White House listening session with survivors from the Florida high school shooting, Trump vowed to be an agent of change and said he’d be looking at age restrictions on gun purchases – something opposed by the NRA.
Trump reiterated support for background check legislation and signaled the possibility he could go further a day after directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to issue a memo banning bump stocks and other devices that allow guns to operate like automatic weapons.
“There are many ideas that I have, there are many ideas that other people have and we’ll pick out the strongest ideas, the most important ideas and the ideas that will work and we’ll get them done,” he said. “It won’t be talk like it has been in the past. It has gone on too along. Too many instances. And we’ll get it done.”
It’s unclear exactly how far Trump intends to go, and the NRA, for the moment, does not see any distance between itself and a president it strongly supported in the 2016 campaign.
While calling some of the policy proposals being discussed “troubling,” Chris Cox, executive director of NRA-Institute for Legislative Action, offered support for Trump, calling him the “most pro-Second Amendment president in recent history.”
“We believe he is serious about finding meaningful solutions to our nation’s serious problems, so that sociopaths and the dangerously mentally ill are prevented from committing these horrific crimes,” Cox said in a statement to the press.
Trump also appeared to offer support during the listening session on Wednesday for proposals to arm teachers and other school employees.
“If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, that could very well end the attack very quickly,” Trump said. “We’re going to be looking at that very strongly.
Still, some of the ideas that Trump appears to be at least entertaining are opposed by the NRA.
On bump stocks, the gun lobby has not supported a ban, and has instead called on Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco to review whether the devices comply with federal law and to determine whether they should be subject to new regulations.
Bump stocks came into public consciousness after a gunman attached one to his rifle in an attack that left 58 dead in Las Vegas last year.
The NRA also opposes new age limits on gun purchases. In a statement Wednesday the group said federal law prohibits adults under the age of 21 from purchasing a handgun from a licensed firearm dealer.
“Legislative proposals that prevent law-abiding adults aged 18-20 years old from acquiring rifles and shotguns effectively prohibits them for purchasing any firearm, thus depriving them of their constitutional right to self-protection,” NRA Spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said.
“We need serious proposals to prevent violent criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from acquiring firearms. Passing a law that makes it illegal for a 20 year-old to purchase a shotgun for hunting or an adult single mother from purchasing the most effective self-defense rifle on the market punishes law-abiding citizens for the evil acts of criminals.”
After the parent of one survivor of last week’s shooting pleaded for Trump to enact an age limit on gun purchases, the president ended the meeting by saying “we’re going to go very strong into age of purchase.”
On background checks, Trump and the NRA have both offered support for legislation approved by the House that would incentivize state and federal agencies to submit conviction records into the national system.
The bill was proposed after a gunman killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The shooter should not have been able to own purchase firearms but the U.S. Air Force failed to register his violent past and court-martial guilty plea into the system.
That legislation is paired with a top NRA priority – a bill to allow concealed weapons to be carried across lines that is opposed by most Senate Democrats and does not have the 60 votes necessary to clear procedural hurdles.
The NRA says it will back the background checks measure on its own, but Trump has signaled he could support going further.
“We’ll be very strong on background checks,” Trump said Wednesday. “Very strong.”
Such musings have alarmed some activists worried he is caving to political pressure.
“It’s pretty clear to me that President Trump has officially caved to the anti-gun media when it comes to gun control,” said Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights.
“He’s turning his back on gun owners.”
Trump once held liberal views on guns, writing in his 2000 book “The America We Deserve” that too many Republicans “walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions on gun purchases.”
In that book, Trump also tied the U.S. murder rate to the availability of guns, supported on a ban on so-called “assault weapons,” and advocated for longer waiting periods.
The president changed his tune markedly as he sought the GOP nomination for president in 2016, warning that Democrats would look to confiscate guns and calling expanded background checks a “slippery slope.”
Last year, Trump became the first president in three decades to address the NRA’s annual meeting. There, Trump declared that “the eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which shares the same view as the NRA on bump stocks, said it’s unlikely Trump was breaking with the gun lobby in calling for a ban.
Lawrence Keane, the group’s senior vice president for government and public affairs and general counsel, said Trump basically just asked DOJ to accelerate a rulemaking process that was already in the works.
“Maybe the president was inartful in his phrasing,” he said.
Cox said the NRA supports efforts to prevent those who are a danger to themselves or others from getting access to all firearms.
“At the same time, we will continue to oppose gun control measures that only serve to punish law-abiding citizens for the acts of criminals,” he said. “These are not mutually exclusive or unachievable goals.”
Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition and executive director of the California-based Calguns Foundation, said Trump’s proposals signal a shift to policies supported by the Obama administration.
“I don’t think attacking the fundamental rights of law abiding people is the right policy,” he said. “We’re talking about emotionally charged arguments on both sides … tragedies should not drive public policy.”
Meanwhile, gun control activists say that the proposals Trump is mulling are toothless and only small steps in the right direction.
They’re waiting to see what the ATF and DOJ propose on bump stocks, but say that legislation is the only proper way to address those components.
And they say the House bill meant to strengthen background checks doesn’t address the thousands of private transactions that take place.
“I don’t’ have a lot of hope that he’s serious about making robust changes but I hope I’m wrong,” said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign.
Democrats and gun control activists are doubtful that bump stocks can be banned through regulatory channels and are calling on Congress to pass legislation to create an all-out ban.
“The only way to close this loophole permanently is legislation,” said Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) ” He should call on Congress to…ban bump stocks, rather than just draft memos.”