We’ve been here so many time before, it’s difficult to see gun laws changing in any significant way after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend. And yet, a few factors are coalescing this week that have created an opening for bipartisan gun-control laws:
- A notable number of Republicans say they are now open to gun-control legislation that they’ve long opposed.
- The National Rifle Association is weakened.
- President Trump is uniquely situated to make a push for legislation, if he wants to.
“I think there’s a decent chance we get a background check bill,” said Jim Kessler, a Democratic strategist with the centrist Third Way think tank who worked in Congress to advance gun-control legislation.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is urging the state’s Republican legislature to expand background checks. At least two House Republicans with relatively pro-gun records say they would support banning automatic weapons and/or high-capacity magazines: Reps. Michael R. Turner (Ohio) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.). A number of high-profile Republican senators have said they are open to legislation such as red-flag measures and even background checks. Some Senate Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), are taking the lead on developing legislation.
And Trump, to the extent that he can be taken at his word on this issue, says he supports red-flag legislation that would limit someone’s access to guns and is holding meetings with senators on background checks.
This is all unusual.
The usual politics of guns in America have amounted to this: It has been more than two decades since Congress passed any major gun-control legislation that became law.
As recently as last year, after the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla., Trump instead came out in support of arming teachers — a proposal from the NRA that even some Republicans in Congress don’t back.
So what’s different this time? There’s the sense that Americans, after years of mass shootings, want tougher gun laws. There’s the horror of having two massacres in one weekend — one of which centers on another conversation the nation is having now, about the rise of white supremacy and how Trump’s rhetoric has factored into violence against immigrants.
Trump has not acknowledged the influence his anti-immigrant rhetoric has on the national debate, instead telling reporters Wednesday that he thinks his rhetoric “brings people together.”
But he also said Wednesday that he’d be open to calling back Congress from its August break to vote on background checks. “We get close, I will bring them back. But it has to be — you know, we have to see where we are with leadership,” Trump said.
That alone would be historic in a Republican-controlled Senate — even if it’s unlikely that such a bill would pass. The Washington Post’s Paul Kane calculates that right now, supporters of a background check bill that passed the House earlier this year don’t have nearly enough votes. A vote on a similar measure failed by six votes in 2013, after 20 schoolchildren and six adults were gunned down in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. All but four Republicans voted against it.
Perhaps the most tangible difference between years past and now is that the most powerful gun lobby in the nation, the NRA, has been upended by scandal, internal strife, and financial and legal problems, which have become public in recent weeks.
The NRA’s problems coincide with a slow-but-steady rise in the power of gun-control advocacy groups. In the 2018 midterm election, gun-control groups outspent the NRA, as Democrats won the House. Gun control groups have won in many high-profile, head-to-head state legislative battles with the NRA over the past several years.
“I’ve been working on gun safety for 15 years,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group backed by former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, told me in April, “and I’ve never seen the NRA this weak.”
The political mobilization, especially among younger people, after last year’s Parkland shooting, gave notice to 2020 presidential candidates and newly elected Democrats that gun control was going to be a priority for them. One gun-control strategist described the 2020 primary on gun policy as the candidates all trying to “out-gun-control each other.” One of the first things the newly Democratic House did was pass gun-control measures.
“I think things started to change after Parkland,” Kessler said, “and we are continuing on that arc."
Then you have Trump. More than any other modern president, he is uniquely positioned to make an impact on the gun-control debate because he commands such a loyal following among Republican base voters. He has scrambled the traditional politics on a number of issues, most notably trade. He could provide cover for Republicans to support any gun-control legislation he chooses.
Add it up, and you have a potential shift in the nation’s gun debate, one that for the first time in a generation could favor gun-control proponents.
That doesn’t mean there will be new gun-control laws in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton massacres. But for those who want stricter gun laws, the current prospect of compromise is a significant opening.