Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said today that he’s waiting for the president to decide what kind of gun violence legislation he’s willing to support. The White House is supposed to have an answer next week, but a big unresolved question is how long any particular position on guns from the president will last.
Trump has two entirely contradictory instincts when it comes to gun laws, and he doesn’t reconcile them particularly well. Trump simultaneously wants to be seen as “doing something” about mass shootings and wants to keep the support of the NRA and the country’s gun owners. This is not a needle he can thread. Democrats and their allies in the media believe gun control, including banning particular kinds of firearms, is the only effective tool to prevent more mass shootings. Any legislation that does not include that will be dismissed as meaningless window dressing. Meanwhile, the NRA and most gun owners will see any step in that direction as punishing law-abiding citizens for the actions of the deranged and evil, and a step towards gun confiscation.
In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Trump wrote, “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.”
But in 2016, the National Rifle Association and gun owners put aside any lingering doubts and supported Donald Trump, because he had the sterling and undeniable quality of not being Hillary Clinton, and he sounded like an ally, at least recently. When Trump stands before the NRA convention attendees, he usually says all the right things. He has appointed judges who recognize the Second Amendment, and his administration has generally pushed federal policy in a pro-gun direction.
Then in March 2018, after the Parkland mass shooting, Trump held an hour-long televised meeting in the Oval Office with lawmakers of both parties. During that meeting, the president endorsed the Assault Weapons Ban, endorsed background checks for private sales at gun shows, endorsed raising the age to purchase firearms to 21, and declared the top priority of the NRA since Trump’s election, concealed-carry reciprocity, “will never pass.” (This bill would ensure that if you have a valid concealed-carry permit in your home state, you are allowed to carry a concealed weapon in any state.) Trump contended members of Congress were “petrified of the NRA” and that he was not. “They have great power over you people. They have less power over me.”
Also during that meeting, Trump contradicted his own vice president’s assurances about due process and basically contended that the government should seize firearms from people it deems dangerous and go back and get legal justification later. “Take the firearms first, and then go to court,” Trump said. “Because that’s another system. Because a lot of times, by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due-process procedures — I like taking the guns early.”
This is the sort of talk that usually leaves NRA leaders and gun owners apoplectic. But the next day, Trump talked on the phone with leaders of the NRA and eventually nothing came of his publicly expressed pro-gun control stances.
Last month, after the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, Trump declared that “Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks” but then two weeks later — after another phone call with the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, Trump said, “people don’t realize we have very strong background checks right now.”
When it comes to gun legislation, it’s not just a matter of what the president wants to do; it’s a question of how long until he changes his mind.