President Donald Trump sees a rare political opportunity to act on gun control — and if there was ever a time to do it, this is probably it.
Nine out of 10 Trump voters support universal background checks, according to a new poll — and a majority favor other gun control measures. The NRA is in shambles. And Trump’s reelection hopes would be helped mightily by more support among moderate suburban voters — who back the measures but abandoned Republicans in the midterms.
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“There’s momentum here and an expectation from the American people to be responsive to this violence,” said a Republican close to the White House and familiar with the president’s thinking. “The president would be smart to lead in this moment; his party would absolutely follow him.”
In the days since mass shootings in Texas and Ohio left 31 people dead, Trump has talked to Congress’ top two leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) multiple times, about how to proceed, according to people familiar with the phone calls. He also called Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the bipartisan tandem who pushed expanded background checks, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who proposed a bill to help states confiscate firearms from people deemed dangerous.
The odds of serious gun control legislation clearing Congress and being signed into law remain slim. McConnell has shown no interest in the past; the same goes for his conference. And the same pattern has played out over and over: A public outcry after a mass shooting, followed by handwringing among lawmakers for a few days or weeks, before the issue fades until the next shooting.
Still, the confluence of public outrage and political imperative for Trump makes the aftermath of El Paso and Dayton distinctive. And Republicans are pushing Trump to take advantage — to create the kind of Nixon-to-China moment they say could help his cause in 2020.
“Because of President Trump’s popularity with the base of the Republican Party, he has a unique opportunity to embrace some modern, limited, and effective safeguards on the sale of new firearms, in addition to action on related issues, like ‘red flags’ and mental health,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist and onetime aide to former Speaker John Boehner. “And, if he backs such measures — consistently and publicly — congressional action is possible.”
A former Trump adviser who remains close to the campaign cautioned that the president won’t make a decision until he gauges Republicans’ interest after the publicity surrounding the latest shootings subsides.
A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll this week found that a majority of Republicans and a majority of Trump supporters backed mandating universal background checks, banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, requiring a waiting period of three days after a gun is purchased before it can be taken home and raising the age to buy a gun to 21.
Support for some measures typically recedes in the weeks after mass shootings, according to polls. Some measures, including background checks, however, consistently remain popular.
Trump has previously expressed support for gun restrictions, most notably after the February 2018 mass shooting at high school in Parkland, Fla. when he endorsed background checks. But the NRA and fellow Republicans protested, and he didn’t follow through.
This time, though, Trump is facing his own political considerations. He doesn’t want to alienate his base but some Republicans have urged him to adopt gun measures to regain support of suburban voters in several key electoral states that were instrumental to his 2016 win.
On Tuesday, NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre warned Trump in a call that background checks wouldn’t be popular with his voters. But according to Republicans close to the White House, Trumps knows that the NRA has been politically weakened amid legal battles and internal fighting that led to the resignation of board president Oliver North. Just this week, the New York attorney general’s office issued a subpoena for documents from more than 90 current and former members of the NRA’s board as part of an investigation into the group’s tax-exempt status.
Some Republicans even suggested Trump’s son, Don Jr., an avid hunter and a popular surrogate for his father on the campaign trial, could help persuade supporters that the president hasn’t lost his strong support for the Second Amendment.
Even McConnell, who showed his interest in courting suburban voters earlier this year when he proposed increasing the age to purchase tobacco, said he’s willing to have a discussion about background checks and red flags laws after speaking to Trump Thursday.
“We are having bipartisan discussion and when we come back we will hopefully pass something,” he said in a radio interview Thursday. “These discussions need to occur.”
Besides background checks, the most politically popular proposal is the “red flag” bill being pushed by Graham, a Trump ally. It would allow for the seizure of arms from individuals who are deemed an imminent threat to themselves or to others. Several Republicans have endorsed the idea.
House Republicans are open to so-called red flag laws, as long as there are due process protections, but they are broadly opposed to universal background checks, which garnered just eight GOP supporters in the chamber. They are, however, watching Trump closely on the issue.
“There is a rush to ‘do something’ without regard for whether or not the ‘something’ would actually make a difference… Ultimately, we have to focus on policies that would actually have an impact on stopping gun violence,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said. “I think that’s where our members are.”
Trump himself noted this week the strong public support for background checks, though he was down on the idea of an assault weapons ban. “There is a great appetite, and I mean a very strong appetite, for background checks. And I think we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before,” he said. “I think both Republican[s] and Democrat[s] are getting close to a bill on, to doing something with background checks.”
Manchin said Wednesday that he was “encouraged” by his conversation with the president and that he’s working on a bipartisan basis to put forward a proposal before the White House of “the responsible pieces of legislation.” He said the White House could pull the pieces together as a package or assess them individually.
“The culture is not going to change unless there’s leadership from the top,” Manchin said, “and that leadership comes from Donald Trump.”
John Bresnahan, Marianne Levine and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.