President Donald Trump is finalizing his proposals designed to curb gun violence. But it’s unclear whether anyone really wants what he’ll be offering.
Most Democrats consider them too weak. Most Republicans, long resistant to triggering their base or the gun lobby, fear Trump won’t push them forcefully enough — leaving them hanging.
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The two sides will begin jockeying over firearms legislation when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill next week, a fight expected to continue through the fall after a string of mass shootings this summer once again pushed the issue to the forefront in Washington.
Trump’s proposals will likely include expediting the death penalty for mass shooters, releasing troubled teenagers’ previously sealed records to the background-check database after they become adults and requiring the FBI to notify local authorities when a potential buyer fails a background check, according to people familiar with the weekslong discussions.
Missing from the list — at least right now — are changes that have become a rallying cry among Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail, such as universal background checks for gun purchases.
In the weeks since two back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio left 31 people dead, White House staffers have been talking with congressional aides of both parties as well as advocacy groups to develop a list of policies for Trump to consider. The president said this week he received 29 proposals.
Most of the proposals Trump is likely to support are not new, and several have failed in Congress, according to the people familiar with the discussions. There’s a bill to strengthen the penalties against so-called straw purchasers, or people who buy guns for others who are not legally allowed to purchase a firearms. There’s legislation to ban people on a terrorism watch list from buying guns. There’s a proposal to increase penalties for those who lie on background-check forms.
“There are any number of pieces of legislation that already exist that we’re looking at,” Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said. “He is willing to do plenty that will actually prevent these. You can’t just say, ‘Do something.’ You have to do something meaningful and measurable.”
Trump is also expected to back proposals that allow for the temporary removal of guns from those deemed a threat to themselves or others, backed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and for the records of minors to be released after they become adults, pushed by former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
Chaffetz said in an interview that having additional information could have prevented some of the recent shootings, including one on Aug. 4 in Dayton in which the shooter had been suspended from high school after he made lists of students he wanted to kill and rape.
Chaffetz said he knew how to get his message across to the White House: He called one of Trump’s top aides, published an op-ed on Fox News and then appeared on Fox News, the president’s preferred station.
“It would have impacted some of the mass shootings,“ he said of his proposal. “A lot of these proposals would not have impacted mass shootings.“
Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, also said the Justice Department “has drafted” legislation to expedite the death penalty for people found guilty of mass killings as part of the package proposed by the White House.
The White House did not provide a timetable for releasing the proposals — which could include other legislation and executive actions addressing violent video games and mental health treatment — but it could be as early as next week when Congress returns from a monthlong recess.
Trump hasn’t decided what changes, if any, to support involving background checks. But many of the proposals he is considering would require additional records to be sent to the flawed National Instant Criminal Background Check System — and would not necessarily expand the number of people who would be checked. Already, federal and state agencies have failed to send millions of mental health and drug abuse records to the database.
“We need that database fixed,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, which opposes further gun control legislation. “It’s got significant problems that need to be fixed.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc., the trade association for the firearms industry, launched a digital ad campaign to push lawmakers to require more records be sent to the database. “A background check is only as good as the records in the database,” according to the ads.
Congress passed legislation last year supported by Trump to increase penalties on agencies that don’t report information to the database, which his aides say could have prevented the mass shootings in Charleston, S.C., Sutherland Springs, Texas and Aurora, Colo.
But the president’s comments over the past month have continued to confuse lawmakers and advocates. At times, he appeared open to universal background checks for gun purchasers, but at other times he stressed the country’s “very strong background checks“ and the need to focus on mental health treatment.
The House passed a bill requiring background checks on all purchases, even between family members, while the Senate has another version that pertains to gun shows and online sales. Republicans say they don’t think either can pass the Senate, where their party has control, despite strong support from a majority of Americans.
“We’re going to be looking at a lot of things, and hopefully coming up with something that’s bipartisan,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “It has to be bipartisan.”
People familiar with the weekslong discussions on both sides of the issue have become convinced that Congress will fail, again, to pass any new legislation, even after a weekend shooting left seven dead in Texas.
“We’ve been here before,” said Katherine Phillips, federal affairs manager at Giffords, a group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) after she was shot and seriously wounded. “This is what happens every time.”
The same pattern has played out time and time again: Congress considers action in the midst of a public outcry but can’t reach a consensus before the issue fades until the next shooting.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said again this week that he would bring legislation to the floor for a vote if Trump takes the lead. “I said several weeks ago that if the president took a position on a bill so that we knew we would actually be making a law and not just having serial votes, I’d be happy to put it on the floor,” McConnell told conservative talk show radio host Hugh Hewitt.
But Trump’s recent comments made some who support gun restrictions worry that the president would defer to Congress after all. “I think Congress has got a lot of thinking to do, frankly,” he said over the weekend.
“Our best chance is that neither wants to stick their necks out,” said Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, which opposes new gun restrictions.
Democrats have been pushing Republicans to take up several proposals, including banning assault weapons, and could refuse to back the administration’s proposals unless they receive more of what they want.
“The gun violence problem is so big, we don’t need small half measures,” said Christian Hayne, vice president of policy for Brady, a group which supports increased firearms restrictions. “We are not going to be interested in weakened, watered-down versions.”
The House has already passed a bill that would extend the time for conducting background checks on purchasers. Its Judiciary Committee will meet next week to take up several other bills, including a ban on both high-capacity magazines and gun ownership by people convicted of hate crimes.
Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, which opposes new gun restrictions, said it’s possible Democrats may succeed in getting additional proposals passed with that strategy but he also said it may end up being “a path to killing everything.”