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Opinion Trump’s latest claim about the Texas shooting is disingenuous nonsense

President Trump claimed "hundreds more" might have died during the Nov. 5 Texas shooting under tougher gun control laws. (Video: The Washington Post)
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It has become an Internet meme that Donald Trump favors extreme vetting for arriving immigrants, but not for would-be gun buyers, and today in South Korea, Trump was confronted by a question about this contrast. It produced a useful answer — one that once again illustrated the deep rot of bad faith at the core of his approach to difficult policy questions.

It’s being widely reported that the Air Force failed to follow the proper policies that would have barred Devin Patrick Kelley, who killed 26 people in a Texas church, from buying firearms. Kelley was discharged from the Air Force after a conviction for domestic violence — including cracking his toddler stepson’s skull — but this information, which could have stopped him from buying the guns he obtained, was not properly transmitted to the FBI or entered into the federal background check database. The Air Force has launched an internal investigation.

Today, in South Korea, Trump was asked by a reporter: “You’ve talked about wanting to put extreme vetting on people trying to come into the United States. I wonder if you would consider extreme vetting for people trying to buy a gun?” Trump replied:

“If you did what you’re suggesting, there would have been no difference three days ago. And you might not have had that very brave person who happened to have a gun or a rifle in his truck go out and shoot him and hit him and neutralize him. If he didn’t have a gun, instead of having 26 dead, you would have had hundreds more dead.”

The claim that there would have been “no difference” if Kelley had undergone “extreme vetting” is another way of saying that an improved gun background check system would not have stopped this shooting. But Trump has no earthly way of knowing this one way or the other. We now know that he very well might not have gotten a gun if not for the Air Force’s catastrophic error. Kelley might have procured one illegally, anyway, or he might not have. Yes, Kelley was confronted by an armed neighbor, but we don’t know how many lives that saved or what that says about the broader background check debate.

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Indeed, as I have argued, it is folly to debate the broader gun violence epidemic in the context of mass shootings. Each of those problems presents an array of different challenges — and fighting over the meaning of particular incidents in isolation is not a good way to debate broad policy solutions.

But here’s what we can say about this: Trump’s immediate fallback on the notion that improving background checks wouldn’t have stopped the carnage is just disingenuous nonsense and bad-faith obfuscation.

The broader policy question here is whether our gun background check system needs improving. What we have learned thus far from this particular shooting is only that there was a system failure that needs to be addressed, and that, because of it, Kelley — a man capable of slaughtering more than two dozen people in the act of worship, children included — was able to obtain guns. If there is any narrow lesson to be drawn, it’s that when there are holes in the system, it enables people who are barred from buying guns to easily obtain them anyway.

In a broad sense, this is the type of problem that those who want to reform our background check system want to address. They want to expand background checks to cover not just sales by federally licensed firearms dealers but also certain types of private sales that create another channel through which people end up unlawfully possessing a gun. They also want to fix the flaws that impede states’ transmission of data about domestic abusers to the federal background check database, which is a problem that resembles the one we saw here.

Trump told us that his thinly veiled Muslim ban was necessary so that we could review our vetting procedures and see where they need to be improved. Applying his own logic to the gun debate should lead to a similar place: If our current system of background checks is inadequate, we should review it to see whether it needs to be improved, too.

Trump, of course, does not believe that the gun background check system should be improved. He is entitled to that view. But the notion that this shooting shows that improving the system wouldn’t make any difference is utter nonsense. What it really shows is that Trump views the flaws he sees in our system of vetting new arrivals as a threat worth addressing, but does not view the flaws in our gun background check system as a threat worth addressing.

My point is not that the Texas shooting itself makes the case for any particular set of background check improvements. It doesn’t, and again, seizing on isolated events isn’t how we should be debating policy. The Air Force’s review of its mistakes here is an appropriate response to this particular horror. Rather, my point is this: Either you believe, in a broad sense, that we should be trying to improve our background check system to make it harder for prohibited people to get guns, or you do not. Trump’s silly misdirection tells us that he does not believe this — and that he probably hasn’t thought seriously about the question for even a second.

* THE FINAL POLLING AVERAGE IN VIRGINIA: The Real Clear Politics polling average puts Ralph Northam up by a mere 3.3 points. Northam has led in the last five polls and has been ahead or tied with Ed Gillespie in the last 10 surveys.

Still, in many of those polls, Northam’s lead has been below five points, and the race has plainly tightened in recent days. Virginia Democrats, get out and vote!

* KEEP AN EYE ON THE HOUSE OF DELEGATE RACES: David Wasserman has a good piece explaining why the 100 House of Delegate races in Virginia will be a good indicator of where 2018 is headed:

If Democrats pick up between five and 10 seats, it would confirm the House is in play. If Democrats surprise and gain 10 or more seats, it would be a sign they are probably on track to take back the House next year.

As Wasserman notes, these races will test whether, in the Trump era, Democrats are able to win seats in otherwise inhospitable territory, which could translate into big gains next year.

* IN MAINE, MEDICAID IS ON THE BALLOT: NPR reports that today Maine voters will decide whether to opt into the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid by ballot initiative, which would be a blow to Gov. Paul LePage:

Question 2 asks Maine voters if they want to provide roughly 70,000 Mainers with health care coverage by expanding eligibility of Medicaid, known as MaineCare. … The number of people enrolled in Medicaid has been dropping, as the LePage administration moved aggressively to restrict eligibility.

Though the state legislature could undo it if the initiative is approved, a win would send a strong message in support of the ACA and expanded health care.

* TRUMP APPROVAL SINKS AMID RISING RUSSIA CONCERNS: A new CNN poll finds that Trump’s approval rating has hit a new low of 36 percent. And:

About two-thirds (64%) now say the investigation into Russian efforts to influence the US presidential election in 2016 is a serious matter that should be fully investigated, while just 32% see it as an effort to discredit Trump’s presidency. That figure is down from 38% saying so in August.

In other words, even some of those initially inclined to agree with Trump that this is a “witch hunt” may now be changing their minds.

* DRIP, DRIP, DRIP IN RUSSIA PROBE CONTINUES: The Post reports that Trump adviser Carter Page sent an email to Trump aides while in Moscow describing a “private conversation” with a Russian official who praised Trump:

Page also wrote that he had been provided “incredible insights and outreach” by Russian lawmakers and “senior members” of Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s administration during the trip. The email appeared to contradict earlier statements by Page, who had said he had only exchanged brief greetings with the senior Russian official …

It’s hard to know how significant each stray bit of information is, but suffice it to say that investigators know a lot more than we do about what all these facts add up to.

* GOP TAX PLAN IS WORSE THAN YOU THOUGHT: Glenn Kessler explains that the GOP plan not only repeals the estate tax; it also has a provision called “stepped-up basis.” That means the only thing that gets taxed is value on capital gains that appreciates after the heir owns it. All the appreciation of value that occurred while the deceased owned the assets is untouched.

As Kessler notes, this would “allow tens of billions of untapped capital gains to remain beyond the reach of the U.S. government,” meaning they would never get taxed. Which will no doubt unleash spectacular growth that will shower great wealth on Trump’s struggling voters in the Rust Belt and Appalachia.

* AND TRUMP COUNTIES DON’T SEE TOO MUCH WINNING: A new NBC News poll samples opinion of the Trump presidency in pro-Trump counties and finds:

The poll, which sampled residents of 438 counties that either flipped from voting Democratic in the 2012 presidential election to Republican in 2016, or saw a significant surge for Trump last year, found that a third — 32 percent — believe the country is better off now than it was before Trump became president. But a plurality — 41 percent — say the country is worse off now than it was when Trump became commander in chief.

Don’t worry. Once those enormous tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations kick in, things will turn around and you’ll start winning bigly, believe me!