President Donald Trump talked about expanding background checks, then wavered. He was considering a “red flag” bill to let authorities take guns away from dangerous people, but has now “cooled” on the prospect, according to three people involved in the discussions.
The whole time, the gun rights lobby was there to nudge the president along. Advocates bombarded the White House with calls and petitions. Representatives scored meetings with senior officials. And the industry even has a former staffer working in the West Wing on legislation. Meanwhile, groups pushing for more restrictions on gun purchases haven’t been able to get in the door.
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It’s an all-of-the-above strategy that is helping to shape the package of gun proposals that Trump is expected to release soon. In addition to possible changes to the background check system, Trump will likely include gun lobby-approved offerings meant to address violent video games and mental health treatment, according to several people familiar with the situation. The red flag bill — a so-called compromise proposal pushed by the president’s ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, but opposed by the gun industry — may not make the cut.
On Thursday night, Trump uttered the words the gun lobby wanted to hear.
“Democrats want to confiscate guns from law-abiding Americans,” he told House Republicans at their retreat. “Republicans will always uphold the fundamental right to keep and bear arms.” He received a standing ovation.
To those who have been pushing Trump to buck the gun lobby, including the powerful but scandal-plagued National Rifle Association, it’s a disappointing development. They say the gun rights groups have caused Trump to lose his momentum to act following a pair of back-to-back mass shootings in August that left many Americans asking for solutions.
“We’re learning even more information about just how far the NRA has sunk its claws into this White House,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a vice chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force told POLITICO. “The American people deserve better than a president who’s bought and paid for by the gun lobby.”
White House aides defend the process — saying they’re speaking to the appropriate and hiring experienced staffers.
Yet their engagement has leaned heavily on those who don’t want significant action on gun control. As the White House staff in recent weeks developed its list of policy options for Trump, it conferred primarily with gun rights advocates who oppose further restrictions on firearms purchases.
Those advocates also have a conduit in the White House in Michael Williams, who worked for the gun rights lobby before being hired as a counselor to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Williams has attended some of the meetings with guns rights representatives and worked alongside White House legislative staff to develop proposals, according to several people familiar with the situation. He has also been in contact with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the group representing the gun industry, including manufacturers, distributors and retailers.
Williams is a former law clerk for the NRA’s lobbying arm who later served as general counsel for the American Suppressor Association, an industry group pushing to make the purchase of suppressors — more commonly known as silencers — easier and cheaper. His brother, Knox Williams, serves as the association’s president and executive director.
Those who oppose additional firearm restrictions say Williams understands their views and can represent them within the White House.
“I think our point of view is being considered,” one person said
But not everyone is happy he’s there.
“We have different positions and a difference of opinion,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said of Williams. “We just have differences, let’s put it that way, and the president is very much aware of that.”
Manchin wants the White House to back a bipartisan proposal — which he developed with Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) — to expand background checks for sales at gun shows and online. They expect to speak to Trump again Thursday.
The White House supported Williams.
“As a matter of practice, the White House employs qualified staff with subject matter expertise to work on policy issues — this is a good thing,” a White House official said. “Michael is part of a very large team of White House staff engaging with members of Congress and their staffs on this important issue.”
Trump is also hearing regularly from the NRA, despite its leadership turmoil and internal strife over executive spending and its finances. While the tumult has left the NRA unable to engage as aggressively in grassroots lobbying, it can still lean on one-one-one conversations.
In recent weeks, Trump has spoken to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre several times. And Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son and an avid hunter who was asked to head up his father’s Second Amendment Coalition advisory group when he won the election, has stayed in contact with Chris Cox, the NRA’s powerful former top lobbyist who left the organization earlier this year.
“It is really hard to believe the president is going to take action when he’s on the phone with Wayne LaPierre, not Gabby Giffords,” said Robin Lloyd, managing director of Giffords, a group founded to promote gun control legislation after the former congresswoman was shot and wounded.
It’s not just the NRA that is getting face time with White House officials.
The Citizens Committee for the Rights to Keep and Bear Arms and Gun Owners of America have both had meetings at the White House, according to the groups. The National Shooting Sports Foundation has spoken several times to White House officials both on the phone and in person.
Other groups blanketed the White House with a more populist tactic. The National Association for Gun Rights delivered petitions with 100,000 signatures from people opposing new gun restrictions, according to the group.
Those wanting Trump to push for more stringent measures are disappointed at the White House’s approach.
“It’s a shame that he’s only interested in hearing from one side,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy for Brady, a group that supports increased firearms restrictions and has not been invited to the White House. Heyne said the selective strategy prevents “a fair and balanced approach.”
After the February 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., Trump had talked of supporting more gun control, including expanding background checks and implementing the “red flag” law. But he backed down amid opposition from the NRA and fellow Republicans.
At times, Trump has appeared open to widening background checks, but at other times, he has stressed the country’s “very strong background checks“ and the need to focus on mental health treatment.
Trump insists the NRA isn’t influencing his decisions, but his comments over the last few weeks have confused lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the issue.
The president has a difficult political calculus to consider: pleasing his conservative base that opposes more gun control versus attracting moderate voters who favor new measures.
According to people familiar with the discussions, Trump is considering several proposals that Democrats consider too weak, including requiring the FBI to notify local authorities when a potential buyer fails a background check; strengthening the penalties against so-called straw purchasers, or people who buy guns for those who can’t legally buy weapons; and banning people on a terrorism watch list from buying guns.
The gun industry is optimistic that the final offerings will be to their liking, given the changes they have already seen, even if it still opposes many of Trump’s potential firearm proposals.
“I think they’re realizing this is a problem with their base,” said Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights. “That’s the No. 1 way to lose an election.”
Daniel Lippman and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.