The president is sounding like a changed man on gun regulations in the aftermath of the trio of mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton. On the south lawn of the White House on Friday, Trump insisted. “We have tremendous support for common sense background checks.”
“I think we can get something really good done,” Trump added. “I really want to see it happen.”
In his implausible address to reporters, the president said that he was working the levers of power to clear the way for action. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he claimed, was “totally onboard.” Trump also suggested he could use his clout with the National Rifle Association to get the gun lobby to be, if not supportive, at least “a little more neutral.”
Is this a true change of heart? Are we witnessing a Nixon-to-China moment with a Republican president finally breaking the log jam on gun control?
Or is this, instead, a cynical PR ploy — with Trump and the gun lobby using happy talk and false promises to ride out the political heat of the moment, to later bog down momentum for change?
The president’s own past reversals on background checks — and the lessons of the gun control push after the Newtown massacre that left 20 elementary school students and six educators dead in 2012 — suggest that anyone taking Trump’s promises of action at face value is about to be taken for a ride.
The tell? Trump is happy to delay action until Congress returns from its summer recess in September.
The Lessons of Newtown
The surest way to lose a push for gun control push in Washington is to slow-walk the response to a mass shooting. Just ask Joe Biden, who learned the hard way.
In the aftermath of the massacre of 20 first graders a Sandy Hook elementary in December 2012, Barack Obama tapped his vice president to lead Congress to action. Biden, pursuing a fair minded, no-drama effort to bring stakeholders to the table and seek a national consensus, regrettably squandered the hair-on-fire urgency of the political moment.
Biden spent a month covening a task force, gathering data and conducting listening sessions, including with the NRA, to come up with policy recommendations. The proposals — for universal background checks and a renewed assault weapons ban were — were nothing new. They could have been put to congress hours after the massacre.
But the delay had served the gun lobby. The nation’s hot flash of grief and anger cooled, and the NRA had time to regroup — launching an $800,000 lobbying blitz against new federal gun regulations. The administration’s proposals were dead on arrival in Congress — which then did its own foot dragging. The Senate waited another three months before voting down the weak-tea Manchin-Toomey bill to close the so-called gun-show loophole, while leaving many private, person-to-person sales unregulated.
This federal dithering stood in sharp contrast to the most effective post-Newtown action, in New York state, where Governor Andrew Cuomo rushed forward legislation stiffening the state’s assault weapons ban, limiting magazine capacity to seven bullets, and creating new red-flag reporting requirements for doctors with patients who threaten violence.
Cuomo — who’d been stung by losing battles with the NRA as Bill Clinton’s HUD secretary — invoked emergency powers to limit debate and jammed the bills through a politically divided state senate, signing the new restrictions into law a month after the shooting.
The Gilroy/El Paso/Dayton Response
If the political lesson of Newtown is that speed is of the essence, then federal gun control in the aftermath of the three most recent mass shootings is likely already dead, aided by the congressional calendar.
Congress broke for its six week summer recess on July 25th, three days before the Gilroy shooting. It is not scheduled to reconvene until September 9th, a month from today.
It is true that the political dynamics of the gun debate have changed since Newtown. There’s now a politically effective, well-funded anti-gun-violence movement that stands as a counterweight to the NRA, which is weakened after its own internal battles.
But if the nation’s gun-control advocates now have more political clout, the importance of being able to seize a political moment is only more heightened today than in was at the end of 2012. In the age of Twitter and Trump, news cycles that once lasted weeks can now turn over in hours. And crises that appear to require an urgent response can be waited out — with demands for change fizzling into an unaccountable new status quo. (Consider that the top elected office holders in Virginia’s executive branch all still have their jobs.)
Absent a continued spate of white nationlist mass murder, the nation’s present focus on gun control will drift by the time anyone in Congress is around to vote on it, giving the NRA time to regroup and reassert it’s political might.
The Wiggle Room in Trump and McConnell’s Words
Even if you’re inclined to take a dangerous leap of faith and take president Trump at his word, it’s important to hear what, exactly, he’s saying.
From his earliest responses to the shootings, Trump has conflated background checks (which require preclearance by authorities before a gun purchase goes through) and red flag laws (which allow judges to remove guns from individuals who make threats of violence or are experiencing a mental health crisis.)
On Monday, Trump tweeted support for the former, but spoke in prepared remarks only about the latter, insisting: “We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms, and that, if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process. That is why I have called for red flag laws.”
In his own remarks to local media in Kentucky, McConnell further muddied the waters about what exactly the Senate might consider, offering that “background checks and red flags will probably lead the discussion,” when the congressional recess ends. “Those are two items that for sure will be front and center as we see what we can come together on and pass.”
Senate veterans like Adam Jentleson, former Deputy Chief of Staff to retired majority leader Harry Reid, are already calling bullshit on this talk of togetherness:
If you think McConnell is serious about gun control, think of it this way: what is a bill will get the support of at least two-thirds of his conference, enough Dems to get to 60 and also pass the House?
— Adam Jentleson 🎈🐢 (@AJentleson) August 9, 2019
In addition, Trump has implied he’d move forward on gun control only as part of some grand bargain that advances his white nationalist agenda that helped inspire the shooting in El Paso in the first place — yoking background checks to “desperately needed immigration reform.” For Democrats, particularly in the House, this would be a poison pill.
The NRA’s Walkback Has Already Started
Where is the NRA on all this? Under new PR management, the gun lobby began its response to the shootings with a quiet backing of the man it spent $30 million to install in the White House. On Monday the association put out a statement appearing to align with Trump on red flag laws: “The NRA welcomes the President’s call to address the root causes of the horrific acts of violence,” adding that “it has been the NRA’s long-standing position that those who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves or others should not have access to firearms and should be admitted for treatment.”
But by Friday, CEO Wayne LaPierre appeared to be tamping down on any legislative fix: “The NRA opposes any legislation that unfairly infringes upon the rights of law-abiding citizens,” he said in a statement. “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 Path Forward
Whatever Trump and McConnell have in mind is likely a distraction at best, and a trap at worst. In times like this it’s helpful to recall the words of a frustrated young HUD secretary. In a 2000 speech, Cuomo said of the NRA: “If we engage the enemy in Washington, we will lose. They will beat us in this town. They are too strong in this town. Their fortress is within the Beltway.” Instead Cuomo insisted, previewing his own path to action a dozen years later, “We’re going to beat them state by state, community by community, because we have the ultimate weapon with us, which is the American people.”
If you’re mad. If you’re frightened. If you want the laws to change, don’t hold your breath waiting on a craven and prevaricating president. Call your governor.