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Trump claims strong congressional support for strengthening background checks for gun buys, at odds with GOP statements

President Trump on Aug. 9 said the National Rifle Association would support background checks or would remain “neutral” in the congressional debate. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump expressed confidence Friday that he could rally recalcitrant Republicans around legislation strengthening background checks and persuade the nation’s powerful gun lobby to drop its long-standing opposition to such measures, tasks that have proved elusive following other mass shootings on his watch.

Appearing outside the White House before a lengthy summer vacation in New Jersey, Trump claimed that conversations in recent days have yielded strong congressional support for “very meaningful background checks” and that his party, which has stymied gun-control efforts this year by Democrats, would take the lead in passing new legislation after returning from an August recess.

“I think Republicans are going to be great and lead the charge, along with the Democrats,” Trump told reporters.

Changing U.S. gun laws has moved from a talking point to a rallying cry for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Here’s how they plan to do it. (Video: The Washington Post)

The president is facing intense pressure to find a way to stem gun violence after two mass shootings last weekend in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, left 31 dead and injured dozens more.

His rosy assessment, however, faced immediate pushback from several skeptical Republicans who expressed concerns about any tougher gun controls infringing on constitutional rights, underscoring the daunting task even for a president who holds extraordinary sway over his party.

The president said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has refused to allow his chamber to consider House-passed bills strengthening background checks, was now “totally on board” after the two men spoke.

In response, a McConnell spokesman said the Kentucky Republican had not yet endorsed any legislation.

National Rifle Association officials geared up Friday to challenge any legislative push for stricter limits, according to an individual with direct knowledge of the effort. 

Inside the White House, aides remained split about whether the administration should embrace more robust background checks, with acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney expressing skepticism about such legislation passing, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks. A spokesman for Mulvaney said he supported expanded background checks.

Seemingly all agreed that a drive for background checks, or tighter gun regulations, would take a concerted and sustained effort by a mercurial president who has often been ambivalent on the issue. 

Trump’s previous declarations of support for tougher gun controls, including after the deadly Parkland, Fla., school shooting in February 2018, have foundered in the face of opposition from Republican lawmakers and the NRA, an organization that strongly backed Trump’s candidacy in 2016. Current and former officials said Trump essentially lost interest, and now a long vacation in Bedminster, N.J., along with a congressional recess, is likely to slow momentum. 

Trump acknowledged to reporters Friday that previous efforts to strengthen background checks “went nowhere.”

“But there’s never been a president like President Trump,” he boasted, not mentioning that he had also championed such efforts as president.

“I have a great relationship with the Republican senators, and I really think they’re — they’re looking for me to make — give them a signal,” Trump said. 

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who was spending the weekend with Trump, dismissed the prospects of expanded-background-check legislation along the lines of a bill that failed to advance in the Senate in 2013. But Graham said he is floating legislation that would potentially require background checks for assault weapons sold at gun shows.

Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, suggested that the failed 2013 bill has not gained fresh support and worried that other steps would undermine the right to due process.

Trump has talked to NRA leaders at least four times, White House officials said, but has not been able to convince them of his position — and chief executive Wayne LaPierre has continued to tell him he is likely to lose political support if he passes a background-check bill. Trump has told aides that the NRA is weaker as it reels from an internal leadership battle and allegations of improper spending, and that he could browbeat the group into backing whatever he wants, two aides said.

The aides spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe internal deliberations.  

Proponents of background-check legislation said they were seeking to convince the president that he could overcome NRA objections. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said he told Trump that NRA members distrusted President Barack Obama and thought he wanted to take their guns. “Mr. President, they don’t feel that way with you,” Manchin said he told the president.

Trump seemed to understand the sentiment. “I think my base relies very much on common sense. And they rely on me, in terms of telling them what’s happening,” he told reporters. 

Trump’s openness to extensive background checks for gun buys draws warning from NRA

Trump also said he is hopeful that the NRA, whose members he called “great patriots,” can be persuaded.

“I think in the end . . . the NRA will either be there or will maybe be a little more neutral, and that would be okay, too,” Trump said.

Manchin said the goal was to make the NRA neutral. 

But to counter the legislative push, NRA officials planned to highlight their power in states that Trump needs to win for reelection and in Senate races that the GOP could lose in 2020, an individual familiar with the effort said.

“I can confirm that the NRA opposes any legislation that unfairly infringes upon the rights of law-abiding citizens,” LaPierre said in a statement this week. “The inconvenient truth is this: The proposals being discussed by many would not have prevented the horrific tragedies in El Paso and Dayton. Worse, they would make millions of law-abiding Americans less safe and less able to defend themselves and their loved ones.”

The NRA executive said he would not discuss his conversations with Trump.

Early in his tenure, at the NRA’s urging, Trump signed legislation that repealed an Obama-era regulation designed to prevent certain mentally ill people from purchasing firearms.

In a tweet Friday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that if Trump “needs the NRA’s sign off for background checks legislation, it will be nearly impossible to accomplish anything meaningful to address gun violence.”

McConnell, who is up for reelection in 2020, has declined to allow the Senate to consider two bills strengthening background checks that passed the House in February, both of which Trump has threatened to veto.

One bill would amend federal gun laws to require background checks for all firearm sales and most transfers. Federally licensed dealers are required to run background checks on people who buy guns, but private sellers who are not federally licensed are not. Under the bill, private parties would have to seek a federal license to facilitate a gun deal.

The second bill would extend the time for the government to complete a background check on someone trying to buy a firearm from a licensed dealer before the sale can go through.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter Thursday to Trump asking him to use his constitutional powers to force the Senate back into session to vote on the two bills — a plea Trump dismissed Friday while speaking to reporters.

In his first interview since the weekend massacres, McConnell said Thursday that he spoke to Trump about the Senate working on legislation to tighten gun laws after the August recess.

McConnell specifically mentioned expanding background checks and “red flag” laws, which would allow authorities to confiscate a firearm from someone deemed a risk to themselves or the public.

“Those are two items that will be front and center as we see what we can come together on and pass,” he said on a Kentucky radio station.

At the same time, McConnell underscored the difficulty in reaching consensus on a divisive issue. Congress has not passed significant gun-control legislation since the 1990s, and advisers said he would not bring anything forward that did not have majority Republican support. 

One Democratic congressional aide who was not authorized to comment publicly noted that Trump floated red-flag laws after the Parkland shooting, but interest fizzled and the effort never went anywhere in the Republican-led Congress. 

After shootings, Democrats rethink reluctance on assault weapons ban

Just two of 53 Republican senators — Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) and Susan Collins (Maine) — are on record in support of expanding background-check laws, specifically through a bill Toomey drafted with Manchin after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

Toomey told reporters this week that he hopes the legislation will now gain momentum, but he acknowledged the difficulty of passing it in the Senate, where there is a 60-vote threshold on most legislation because of the filibuster rule.

Aides said Trump had polled a range of supporters about what they would accept. 

“The problem is that you throw a liberal an inch on gun control and they take a mile,” said Doug Deason, a prominent donor to Trump. 

But Deason said he expected that the president would still seek a universal-background-check bill. “I’m a big gun guy, and I’m all for background checks,” he said. 

Mike DeBonis, Colby Itkowitz and Paul Kane contributed to this report.