Something is happening on the issue of guns, something that’s enough to give those of us who have grown cynical a reason to hope that the latest mass shooting at a school may actually produce legislation to reduce America’s spectacular death toll from firearms. But we should see it for what it is, which means not fooling ourselves about what President Trump and his party are willing to support — at least not yet.
Last night, Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker reported that the president “surveyed Mar-a-Lago Club members about whether he ought to champion gun control measures in the wake of last week’s school massacre in nearby Parkland, telling them that he was closely monitoring the media appearances by some of the surviving students, according to people who spoke with him there.” This is how decisions get made these days: The president watches TV, then seeks advice from people who have paid $200,000 to be members of his private club. Apparently they convinced him that he ought to do something, because today we learned this:
President Trump signaled support for one piece of gun control legislation on Monday, five days after a mass shooting at a Florida high school left 17 people dead and scores injured.
“The president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, wrote in a statement Monday morning.
Sanders said the president spoke to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) on Friday to express support for the bill Cornyn has introduced with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). The bill is still being amended, the White House cautioned.
Before you get too encouraged, there are some reasons to be skeptical about this. First of all, the fact that the White House is saying Trump supports this measure today doesn’t mean he’ll support it tomorrow. He said he wanted to help the “dreamers” too, and we’ve seen how that has gone. He could change his mind after a conversation with a couple of conservative Republican congressmen who tell him that his base will abandon him if he starts undermining our sacred Second Amendment rights.
More importantly, even if he does support the bill Cornyn and Murphy have written, it would be only a small step toward saner gun laws. If you suspect that Cornyn wouldn’t support a gun law if it did all that much, you’d be right. This bill was proposed in the wake of the mass shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., last November, when we learned that the Air Force failed to report the shooter’s domestic violence conviction to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Because of that oversight, he was able to purchase the guns he used to kill 26 people. The bill reiterates the requirements of federal agencies to report infractions to the NICS and offers incentives for states to do the same.
In other words, it doesn’t change the shape of federal gun laws at all. It isn’t a bad thing, but it’s just about the least you could do if, say, you’re a Republican wanting to make it seem like you’re taking action on guns without doing much of anything. It’s so modest even the National Rifle Association doesn’t oppose it.
So no Republican, including the president, should be able to answer the question of what they’re going to do about guns by saying “I support Senator Murphy and Senator Cornyn’s bill.” There’s nothing wrong with it, but that question should be followed immediately by others. Such as: Will you push for universal background checks, which 90 percent of Americans support? How about stricter licensing requirements to make sure that those with guns really are “responsible”? After all, Republicans want to make people take drug tests, log their work hours and navigate an obstacle course of bureaucratic hurdles in order to get Medicaid. If that’s how we treat those who just want health coverage, shouldn’t we make people do at least as much to be allowed to buy weapons that can kill dozens of people in seconds?
Long experience has taught us that the overwhelming majority of elected Republicans would prefer to just mouth some meaningless pablum about “dealing with mental health” until attention fades and they can stop pretending they actually care about the tens of thousands of Americans killed with guns every year, at least until the next mass shooting. Their bad faith on this issue is a given, but like all politicians, they’ll do what they otherwise wouldn’t if the pressure becomes intense enough.
We thought that the moment for action had arrived after another young man, also driven by rage and also armed with an AR-15, killed 20 elementary school students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. There was a bipartisan bill then, too, for universal background checks; it had the support of a majority of senators but fell in the Senate regardless. Now the Parkland, Fla., shooting and the extraordinary activism of the students who survived is raising hopes that we might get some change in policy.
As before, the key question is whether Republicans will stand in the way. And whether, if they do, the voters will toss them out of office and put in representatives who actually believe this is a problem we ought to be trying to solve.