We’ve reached an inflection point on the gun debate, with Republicans openly talking about passing laws to limit people’s access. That doesn’t mean that will happen. There’s only one person who can push the party to support gun-control laws, and it’s President Trump.
And as the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, fade into the background, it seems as if Trump has little appetite for taking on such a heavy lift, and every intention of resuming his position in line with the National Rifle Association: no new gun-control laws.
Two comments Trump made recently make that evident:
On Sunday, while talking to reporters in New Jersey, he was asked where gun control stands. His answer indicated that he’s not really involved in these negotiations.
So, Congress is working on that. They have bipartisan committees working on background checks and various other things. And we’ll see. I don’t want people to forget that this is a mental health problem. I don’t want them to forget that, because it is. It’s a mental health problem. And as I say — and I said the other night in New Hampshire; we had an incredible evening — I said: It’s the people that pull the trigger.
The problem with that, from the perspective of those who want expanded background checks and red-flag laws, is that Congress hasn’t passed gun-control laws in more than two decades. Democrats have come around recently to prioritizing gun-control laws. A package of background-check bills was one of the first things the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed earlier this year.
But not Republicans. They need a president to lead them before taking on such a politically perilous endeavor. Otherwise, their leaders are just as happy to set this debate aside. A key player in letting gun-control laws pass the Senate is a politician who is up for reelection next year in a pro-gun state, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Maybe Trump was being noncommittal in public and is in extensive talks in private with Republican leaders on gun control. But if that’s the case, these talks are unusually secretive.
A Democratic player in the gun-control debate, Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), who has talked with the White House about his bipartisan bill to expand background checks, gave no indication Trump is taking his bill seriously.
“How do you get anything done?” Fox News host Maria Bartiromo asked him Sunday.
“Well, this is where the president comes in,” Manchin said. “The president is the only one that can make this happen with the — with the control they have as far as the Republicans have control of the Senate.”
Another thing Trump has recently said underscores that he’s not having the kind of tough conversations with his supporters he would need to be to move his party on gun control. At a rally in New Hampshire on Thursday, Trump had an opportunity to sell a rapt audience on the case for gun-control laws.
Instead, he repeated an NRA talking point that guns aren’t the problem:
We are working very hard to make sure we keep guns out of the hands of insane people and those who are mentally sick and shouldn’t have guns. But people have to remember, however, that there is a mental illness problem that has to be dealt with. It’s not the gun that pulls the trigger. It’s the person holding the gun.
There’s evidence that his base is amenable to a conversation about gun control. A recent Fox News poll shows the momentum is there among Trump’s base to push for gun-control legislation on nearly every aspect of the debate, including: what Trump voters most fear (mass shootings over a terrorist threat), why they think the problem exists (access to guns is up there with concern over lack of services for mentally ill people), and what to do about it (there is measurable support for expanding background checks and red-flag laws).
The New York Times reports Trump's campaign is even polling his supporters to see what they're open to.
But just as moving Congress takes leadership, so does moving a base of supporters, especially on an issue as politically entrenched as guns.
The person who is positioned to do both has so far shown no willingness to get out in front and lead. Until he does, it’s not likely we’ll see gun-control legislation seriously considered by both parties anytime soon.