Here's the thing, though: He could probably make it happen — if he wanted to. And in that way, he's a completely unique figure in the recent history of the Republican Party and American politics.
Trump is, for all intents and purposes, a weakened president. He has long had a historically low approval rating, and almost nobody outside the Republican Party base supports him. But his nonstop catering to the base and shunning of everyone else — on a level we simply haven't ever seen — has also created a very interesting paradox. When it comes to issues like gun control and immigration, Trump is probably uniquely able to make something happen.
The Republican Party has long been unwieldy and focused on conservative purity. Whatever you think of what Trump has done to it and to our politics more broadly, he has moved the party away from that tea party, litmus-test focus. The party has shifted significantly on issues like free trade, almost by Trump's force of will. It has traded conservative purity for what is, in a lot of ways, Trump purity. It has become more about personality than policy, and Trump is that personality.
When it came to the immigration debate, Trump decided not to cash in on that goodwill — not to spend that vast amount of political capital he had amassed with the GOP base. When immigration-hawk senators and aides got in his ear, he apparently got cold feet on the Graham-Durbin deal. Then, when he actually wound up getting a deal that he pretty easily could have sold to the base, he decided against taking it.
The question on guns is whether history will repeat itself — whether Trump will simply declare the specifics of whatever Congress might produce to be insufficient and a bad deal. It's not difficult to see him pulling out of it since Democrats won't support arming teachers, which is Trump's main proposal. And White House spokesman Raj Shah on Thursday suggested the president would not propose specific legislative language on guns, leading to the unmistakable conclusion that Trump's commitment on this could be pretty malleable.
Following through on his professed desire to look at gun laws certainly wouldn't come without cost for Trump. Whatever goodwill Trump has built with the base, there would certainly be people inside the party who would bristle at a real effort at gun control. And if the NRA bucks, Trump could have a showdown on his hands that could drain that political capital and erode his base — which, again, is all he has. It's not a campaign for him to undertake lightly.
But in opposing Trump, the NRA would be forced to think about just how hard it wants to push back. The NRA certainly has credibility with the GOP base, but picking a fight with Trump means possibly losing in a way the NRA simply hasn't lost in a very long time. It seems just as likely Trump could help massage the NRA's hard line on all of this stuff, which would definitely grease the legislative skids.
Trump has a unique ability to make that happen, whether on guns or a host of other issues. He just needs to decide what it is he wants to spend his capital on.