Lawmakers will return to Washington this week after an August recess book-ended by frightful gun massacres without a clear sign of where President Donald Trump stands on gun control.
A pair of shootings in Texas and Ohio last month thrust the gun debate to the fore. Trump instructed the Justice Department and members of the White House domestic policy team to prepare a menu of options he could present to lawmakers when they returned to Capitol Hill. The Justice Department delivered its proposals to the White House two weeks ago.
And while the list did not include universal background checks, sources say that some officials – even Attorney General William Barr – have quietly urged him to consider backing such a step.
At the same time, the President embarked upon a widespread survey of his political advisers and allies – including members of his family, conservative commentators and those paid to give him political counsel – to gauge how any action could affect his standing with his base of support. Many expressed concern that pursuing “meaningful background checks” – as Trump phrased it in August – could erode his support among Republicans.
The competing arguments and political wrangling have pulled the President in opposing directions. As lawmakers prepare to debate the issue, Trump is still deciding what to get behind.
Among the items being considered, according to people familiar with the matter: allowing minors’ records to be included in background check databases; alerting local authorities when someone fails a background check; applying bigger penalties for straw purchases; instituting a ban on gun purchases for people on terror watch lists; and an increased penalty for people who lie on background check forms.
Those are in addition to measures the President and his aides have floated publicly: augmenting “red flag” laws which would remove weapons from people deemed at risk; adding additional government records to an existing background check database; improving mental health services; and expediting the death penalty for convicted mass shooters.
Administration aides say some Trump officials, including Barr, have nudged the President toward supporting universal background checks. Trump voiced initial support for background checks after the pair of shootings at the start of last month, but backed off under pressure from the National Rifle Association and conservative members of his inner circle.
Barr last week convened senior Justice officials to discuss possible solutions, including legislative fixes to keep guns from potential mass shooters, according to people briefed on the meeting. Among the issues raised by some officials was the need for universal background checks, the sources said.
The recent shooting in Odessa, Texas, highlighted holes in the federal background check system, which requires licensed gun dealers to do background checks but doesn’t have the same requirement for private sellers.
Barr expressed concern about the loophole and told officials it is an issue he is working on. But, officials say, Barr is wary of putting Trump in a bind by pushing legislation that the President and his advisers have lately cooled on.
Universal background checks weren’t on the list sent to the White House. When the President finally makes a decision on what to pursue, Barr is expected to take a leading public role in overseeing any changes.
The options developed by the administration haven’t been publicly unveiled. So far, Trump has resisted calls to get behind steps that would expand background checks, a step that enjoys wide support in public polling but is opposed by many gun rights advocates.
Another shooting spree in Texas last week reignited the gun debate. This time, the shooter failed a background check during an attempted firearm purchase in 2014 because he had earlier been adjudicated “a mental defective.” He later purchased the firearm used in the massacre in a so-called “private sale,” which didn’t require a background check.
Trump insisted after that shooting that the dynamics in Washington hadn’t changed. He has not settled on a concrete gun proposal, according to administration officials, leaving lawmakers from both parties in limbo.
Waiting for Trump
Republican leaders on Capitol Hill say they are waiting for Trump to take a clear stance on what kind of bill he would sign before deciding how to proceed.
“I said a few 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 would be happy to put it on the floor,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show Tuesday.
McConnell added that he expected to get specifics from the administration within the next week.
On Wednesday, Trump said he is considering 29 different proposals, but he did not offer specifics. He added that he has “been having a lot of phone discussions” with members of Congress and that “we’ll be making some pretty good determinations pretty soon.”
“I support safety for our citizens. I support keeping guns out of the hands of sick people, mentally ill people,” he said.
The President has faced pressure from the NRA and GOP lawmakers who represent conservative districts to avoid supporting measures that would be perceived as restrictive to gun owners. Some White House officials oppose stronger gun control measures, despite Trump’s professed openness to solutions.
But the White House has carried on discussions about potential gun measures over the past several weeks with Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a fierce anti-gun violence advocate in the Senate, as well as Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is calling for a bipartisan bill to expand background checks for commercial gun sales.
Trump also met in the Oval Office on Thursday with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a co-sponsor with Toomey of a background check bill that previously failed in the Senate in 2013 after it struggled to win support from Republicans.
In the discussion, Trump did not rule out supporting background checks, according to a person familiar with the matter. But he did not explicitly endorse the Toomey-Manchin bill, and signaled he was more likely to get behind the package of smaller items the administration is preparing.
People familiar with the discussions cast doubt on the likelihood that the Manchin-Toomey background checks bill will ultimately win the President’s support, and Republicans in the Senate have sounded skeptical about the legislation in recent days. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, told reporters last month that discussions were happening about the background checks bill, “but I don’t see the dynamic of it having changed much.”
Instead, the White House and Republican lawmakers have been promoting red flag laws as the primary potential response to the recent spate of shootings, multiple people involved said. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced shortly after the El Paso and Dayton shootings that he had reached an agreement with Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal for a bill that would offer grants to states that adopt red flag laws.
GOP lawmakers may be more comfortable supporting Graham and Blumenthal’s grant program because the legislation is a step removed, leaving the decision-making to the states.
Still, some Republicans have concerns about protection orders under red flag laws: “If we have that discussion, if we’re going to offer grants to states to pass red flag laws, we ought to attach to those grants very strict guidelines in terms of due process,” Johnson said of Graham’s proposal.
Trump’s advisers have warned him about the implications of red flag laws for veterans, who may suffer from post-traumatic stress or other mental issues that could, under some of the proposals, have trouble obtaining a gun post-service.
And Trump’s own son, Donald Trump Jr., holds reservations about the idea as well. When a White House official called Trump Jr., an avid outdoorsman and frequent surrogate to conservative groups, over the August recess to brief him on some of the options under consideration, the President’s son expressed worries not only about background checks, but also about red flag laws, a person familiar with his comments said.