The president’s flirtation with universal background checks and other popular gun control measures has been predictably brief. (We’ve been predicting the president was running another bait-and-switch on the American public for since basically the moment the latest racket started.)
In the wake of the massacres in Dayton and El Paso, Trump had appeared to break from GOP orthodoxy on gun control: “Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks,” Trump tweeted on August 5th, suggesting he was open to a grand bargain to yoking gun restrictions to immigration curbs:
We cannot let those killed in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, die in vain. Likewise for those so seriously wounded. We can never forget them, and those many who came before them. Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2019
A few days later, on August 9th, Trump doubled down telling reporters from the White House lawn: “We have tremendous support for common sense background checks.”
“I think we can get something really good done,” Trump said, insisting it was a personal commitment: “I really want to see it happen.” Playing up his leadership, Trump claimed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel was “totally on board” (McConnell wasn’t) and that he could use his clout to get the National Rifle Association to be “a little more neutral” on gun control.
Recent polls underscore why the president wants to be seen as responsive on this issue. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey conducted in the aftermath of El Paso and Dayton found:
- 89 percent support for universal background checks
- 76 percent support for red flag laws (allowing confiscation of guns from people found to be a danger to themselves or others)
- 75 percent support for a government-run, voluntary gun buy-back program
- 62 percent support for an assault weapons ban.
But as the flash of national pain and anger has begun to temper, Trump’s newfound conviction on gun control has already lost its way.
At an impromptu press conference before returning to the White House from his weekend golf outing in New Jersey, Trump fielded questions about guns and used the opportunity to play up his closeness with the NRA. “I’ve had a great relationship with the NRA, and I will always have a great relationship,” he said. “I’ve been very good for the NRA.”
The president then distanced himself from the work of Congress on background checks that he claimed to be leading, as a matter of personal commitment, only days ago. The real problem, as Trump sees it now, is no longer a lack of gun control but a lack of mental health control — specifically a lack of insane asylums:
Q: What about gun control, Mr. President? Where does that stand?
THE PRESIDENT: So, Congress is working on that. They have bipartisan committees working on background checks and various other things. And we’ll see. I don’t want people to forget that this is a mental health problem. I don’t want them to forget that, because it is. It’s a mental health problem.
To be clear, the president is leaning on prejudice rather than research in linking mass shootings to mental illness. Research indicates that people with mental illness are less likely to commit mass violence than the general population.
A reporter then followed up with a specific question for Trump about gun magazine capacity, citing the Dayton shooter, who shot 26 people in just 32 seconds with an AR-15 semiautomatic assault pistol, equipped with a 100-round double-drum magazine. Trump dodged the question, instead waxing nostalgic about the age of insane asylums:
Q: Mr. President, the Dayton shooter had a 100-round-capacity magazine. Would you support banning high-capacity magazines?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we’re going to look at a whole list of things, and I’ll make a determination then… But you have to remember, also, it’s a big mental — I was talking about mental institutions. They closed so many — like 92 percent — of the mental institutions around this country over the years, for budgetary reasons. These are people that have to be in institutions for help. I’m not talking about as a form of a prison. I’m saying for help. And I think it’s something we have to really look at — the whole concept for mental institutions.
I remember, growing up, we had mental institutions…. A lot of them were closed. And all of those people were put out on the streets. And I said — even as a young guy, I said, “How does that work? That’s not a good thing.” And it’s not a good thing. So I think the concept of mental institution has to be looked at.
Asked to clarify just what he was looking for from Congress, the president said he is “very, very concerned with the Second Amendment,” and suggested the background checks debate is a distraction because, “we already have a lot of background checks.” (In truth, about a quarter of gun transfers go through without a background check.)
Q: Could just be a little clearer on your position on background checks and guns. What would you support exactly?
THE PRESIDENT: So, Congress is looking at it very strongly. Bipartisan. I put in certain parameters, which you somewhat know about. I’m also very, very concerned with the Second Amendment, more so than most Presidents would be. People don’t realize we have very strong background checks right now.
If you go in to buy a gun, you have to sign up. There are a lot of background checks that have been approved over the years. So I’ll have to see what it is. But Congress is meeting. Bipartisan. A lot of people want to see something happen. But just remember this: Big mental problem, and we do have a lot of background checks right now.
Q: But you’re not willing to support universal background checks right now?
THE PRESIDENT: I’m not saying anything. I’m saying Congress is going to be reporting back to me with ideas. And they’ll come in from Democrats and Republicans. And I’ll look at it very strongly. But just remember, we already have a lot of background checks. Okay?
To recap: After a brief flirtation with gun control that earned him credulous headlines as a maverick committed to expanding background checks, Trump has begun his headlong retreat to the Republican status quo on guns, lining up with the NRA. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.