Trump repeatedly upends GOP lawmakers in gun session

President Donald Trump on Wednesday sign...

Posted: Mar 1, 2018 12:10 PM
Updated: Mar 1, 2018 12:10 PM

President Donald Trump on Wednesday signaled his support for a hodgepodge of policies -- from strengthening background checks to raising the minimum age to buy certain guns and taking guns away from the mentally ill -- during a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House.

But after the hourlong televised session, it was still unclear what specific legislation Trump would support. And the wide-ranging meeting, which included blunt back-and-forths between the President and members of both parties, laid bare the vast divide on gun legislation and Trump's own unfamiliarity with the searing, years-old gun debate.

Trump did make clear, though, that he hopes lawmakers will put together a more comprehensive bill that will change gun laws, tackle mental health issues and include other provisions to stop mass shootings from recurring. It's an approach that contradicts the more narrow ideas Republican leaders have pushed in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting two weeks ago.

"I'd rather have you come down on the strong side, instead of the weak side," Trump told the lawmakers as he wrapped the meeting. "The weak side would be much easier. I'd rather have you come up with a strong, strong bill and really strong on background checks."

His approach was largely in opposition to National Rifle Association priorities, and he undercut Republicans throughout the session.

The President suggested Republicans and Democrats work together to add provisions to the 2013 Manchin-Toomey gun legislation that would more significantly expand background checks and close existing loopholes.

Trump even shot down a provision favored by House Republican leaders to tie a more narrow background check fix to a measure that would make concealed carry permits reciprocal between states, saying it would make broader legislation unpassable.

Throughout the session, Trump was repeatedly urged by Democrats to throw his support behind specific, comprehensive measures.

"Mr. President, it's going to have to be you that brings Republicans to the table on this," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, told Trump at one point.

"I like that responsibility, Chris, I really do. It's time that a President step up," Trump said, though he did not throw his support behind specific legislative provisions as he was urged.

Trump did repeatedly urge lawmakers not to be afraid of the NRA, but his feel for the gun lobby's grip on Republican lawmakers in Washington appeared to be the extent of his understanding of the factors that have shaped the gun debate in recent decades.

'You're afraid of the NRA, right?'

During an exchange with Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, Trump said he "hasn't heard a lot about" the duo's eponymous bill to strengthen background checks, which has been pushed for five years, garnering 54 votes in the Senate in 2013.

Trump at one point asked Toomey whether his proposal raised the age of gun purchases from 18 to 21. When Toomey said the bill didn't, the President said, "Because you're afraid of the NRA, right?"

The comment hit the room like a lead balloon because Toomey has faced some of the toughest heat from the NRA, which downgraded his rating after he championed the legislation to expand background checks.

Wednesday's meeting, though, was the latest instance in which Trump has signaled a willingness to fight the NRA, though he again underscored his comments by saying he believes the group's leaders are "going to do what's right."

"I said, 'Fellows, we got to do something,' " Trump said of his recent lunch with the group's leaders. "And they do have great power. I agree with that. They have great power over you people. They have less power over me. I don't need it. I don't -- what do I need? But I tell you, they are well-meaning."

The President floated several proposals on Wednesday that are at odds with the gun lobby, again raising the possibility of increasing the age of rifle purchases from 18 to 21, though he didn't specifically say he would sign a bill that includes that provision.

"While today's meeting made for great TV, the gun-control proposals discussed would make for bad policy that would not keep our children safe," NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said in a statement. "Instead of punishing law-abiding gun owners for the acts of a deranged lunatic, our leaders should pass meaningful reforms that would actually prevent future tragedies."

Lawmakers should focus on "fixing the broken mental health system, strengthening background checks to ensure the records of people who are prohibited from possessing firearms are in the (National Instant Criminal Background Check) system, securing our schools and preventing the dangerously mentally ill from accessing firearms," Baker added.

'Take the firearms first'

Trump also said he was eagerly waiting to sign an executive action to ban bump fire stocks, gun accessories that make it easier for semiautomatic weapons to fire like they are automatic -- another proposal the NRA opposes.

He drew an outcry in some conservative circles after he suggested during the meeting that police should be empowered nationwide to confiscate guns from individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others, without due process.

"Take the firearms first, and then go to court," Trump said, contradicting a comment Vice President Mike Pence had just made. "Because that's another system. Because a lot of times, by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due process procedures -- I like taking the guns early. Like in this crazy man's case that just took place in Florida, he had a lot of firearms. They saw everything -- to go to court would have taken a long time. So you could do exactly what you're saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second."

During the meeting, Trump called on the bipartisan group of lawmakers to "turn our grief into action" and move in a bipartisan way "to end this senseless violence" of mass shootings.

"It can be ended and it will be ended," Trump said.

The President also once again cited a need to "harden" schools and called for arming "people with a certified training" to carry guns in schools, though he noted that "some people will oppose" that -- and urged those opponents to voice their criticism. While he continued to advocate for the proposal, he signaled that it might be left up to the states, some of which he said may "feel differently" about it.

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