Once again, Trump gives mixed signals on background checks for gun purchases

President Trump, First Lady Melania Trump in El Paso
President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, in El Paso on Wednesday, greet first responders after the city’s mass shooting.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

Five days after 31 people were killed in two mass shootings, President Trump has sounded authoritative in promising to do “something big” to expand gun safety laws — but his words are riddled with enough ambiguity to warrant questions about his intent to follow through.

Before he left the White House on Wednesday to visit with victims and first responders in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Trump told reporters that “there is no political appetite” for a ban on assault-style weapons, which were used in last weekend’s two massacres.

But, he went on, expanding background checks for gun purchases and transfers could be a different story. He has asked his attorneys what he could achieve through an executive order on gun safety in case Congress does not act when it returns from recess in September.


“There’s a great appetite — and I mean a very strong appetite — for background checks,” the president said. “And I think we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before. I think both Republican and Democrat are getting close to a bill on — they’re doing something on background checks.”

The president has defined an end goal — keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill — in broad terms, seemingly conflating background checks and so-called red flag laws in a way so that either could be defined as a major accomplishment.

“I’m looking to do background checks,” he said. “I think background checks are important. I don’t want to put guns into the hands of mentally unstable people or people with rage or hate, sick people. I don’t want to -- I’m all in favor of it.”

But Trump’s optimism does not seem to align with Washington’s static political reality. While opinion polls show expanding background checks is broadly popular, a majority of Republican lawmakers oppose it, complicating the passage of federal legislation by a dysfunctional, deeply divided Congress.

Personally, Trump appears sincere about wanting to expand background checks on all gun purchases, seeing the opportunity for another Rose Garden signing ceremony celebrating a signature accomplishment. He has conveyed as much to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the leadership of the National Rifle Assn., according to two people familiar with his thinking.

But he has said that before, raising the hopes of gun safety advocates, only to back off.

Trump offered support for expanding background checks after a gunman with a semiautomatic rifle killed 17 students and staff members at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018. But he quickly abandoned the idea after the NRA reacted negatively.


Now, as he restates his willingness to accept universal background checks, the president is painting with a broad rhetorical brush and leaving himself plenty of wiggle room for proposals that would achieve far less.

Trump has stopped short of endorsing a proposed bill to expand background checks on gun sales across the country, although he spoke this week with both co-sponsors, Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). The bipartisan legislation failed to pass the Senate in 2013.

The NRA opposes the Manchin-Toomey bill and its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, has made that clear to the president in recent days, according to a person familiar with recent conversations.

At the moment, 21 states require some level of background checks, including 12 that have passed universal background check measures. But 29 states require none.

Following the weekend shootings, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) announced bipartisan legislation that would create a federal grant program to encourage states to adopt “red flag” laws, which allow courts to temporarily bar individuals from possessing guns based on some showing of imminent danger or a risk of misuse.

At least 17 states and the District of Columbia have adopted “red flag” laws.

A 10-year ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, passed in 1994 as part of a Clinton administration crime bill, included a sunset provision that allowed the ban to expire in 2004. Studies show mixed results in assessing the ban’s effectiveness at reducing deaths from mass shootings.


In a tweet this week, Trump floated the idea of tying an expansion of gun restrictions with his demands for stricter immigration laws. Since both issues are politically explosive, some aides have tried to scuttle the idea but the president, always seeking leverage in negotiations, still sees it as a long-shot possibility.

Ultimately, if the NRA or Senate Republicans give ground and support an expansion of background checks, Trump will need to persuade them to do so by personally providing enough political pressure and political cover. That seems unlikely.

The president, always wary of upsetting his base of ardent supporters, may be loath to spend his own political capital to try to change long-held conservative orthodoxy on the 2nd Amendment, especially as he’s heading into a difficult reelection campaign next year.

“If he’s serious, he will get on the phone with Mitch McConnell and demand that the Senate comes back from recess and votes on legislation that’s being drafted,” said Shannon Watts, a co-founder of Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group. “If they continue sitting on their hands, there will be hell to pay in the ... 2020 elections.”

Amid a seemingly endless epidemic of gun violence in America, public opinion broadly appears to be gradually shifting toward stricter gun laws.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll released in May, 94% of U.S. voters support requiring background checks for all gun buyers, as do 90% of gun owners.


Overall, 60% of voters support stricter gun laws in general -- but a majority of Republicans still do not.

“If those polls are true, if 90% of gun owners support background checks, those are Trump voters too,” Watts said. “There isn’t a parent in this country right now who isn’t afraid that their child will be next, and that’s among Democrats and Republicans alike.”