Trump backs off background checks — but green light on red flag laws?


Hey, he never promised you a Rose Garden … ceremony. After publicly endorsing the expansion of background checks for firearms sales, Donald Trump has reversed himself after hearing from Republican allies and NRA chief Wayne LaPierre. However, that doesn’t mean that Trump won’t pursue other changes in the wake of two mass shootings:

President Trump talked Tuesday with National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre and assured him that universal background checks were off the table, according to several people familiar with the call.

Trump told LaPierre that the White House remained interested in proposals that would address weapons getting into the hands of the mentally ill, including the possibility of backing so-called “red flag” laws that would allow the police to temporarily confiscate guns from people who have been shown to be a danger to themselves or others.

Nonetheless, the president’s conversation with LaPierre, which was first reported by the Atlantic, further reduced hopes that major new gun-safety measures will be enacted after the latest round of mass shootings.

At the time, reports emerged that Trump had bought into the idea of getting expanded background checks passed that he had already begun planning a Rose Garden ceremony. That idea got planted in Trump’s head by his daughter Ivanka, according to the Atlantic, and it took some effort to unplant it:

His daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, had proposed the idea of a televised Rose Garden appearance as a way to nudge her father toward supporting universal background checks. The president had recently suggested he was open to the gun-control measure, tweeting, “Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying this legislation with desperately needed immigration reform.” To be sure, this was similar to how he’d responded to other mass shootings during his 31-month presidency, and each time, the push for action fizzled. But the prospect of a Rose Garden ceremony, his daughter thought, where Trump could sign a document and call it “historic” and “unprecedented”—and receive positive media attention—might be the best chance of yielding real change.

For a moment, it looked like it just might work. “He loved it. He was all spun up about it,” said a former senior White House official who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke with me on the condition of anonymity in order to share private conversations. On August 7, the president picked up the phone to discuss the idea with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association. “It’s going to be great, Wayne,” Trump said, according to both a former senior White House official and an NRA official briefed on the call. “They will love us.” And if they—meaning the roughly 5 million people who make up the NRA’s active membership, and some of Trump’s electoral base—didn’t, Trump reportedly assured LaPierre, “I’ll give you cover.” (The White House did not return a request for comment for this story.)

“Wayne’s listening to that and thinking, Uh, no, Mr. President, we give you cover,” the former senior White House official said in describing the conversation. The president reportedly asked LaPierre whether the NRA was willing to give in at all on background checks. LaPierre’s response, the sources said, was unequivocal: “No.” With that, “the Rose Garden fantasy,” as the NRA official described it to me, was scrapped as quickly as it had been dreamed up.

Expect to hear plenty about the NRA’s influence from critics today, but that will miss the point. Trump might have been willing to cross the NRA — in fact, he might still be willing to do so on other points, such as red-flag laws. Trump changed his mind when he saw that he had no support for expanded background checks from his own party, CNN reports this morning:

But while Tuesday’s call helped solidify the President’s position, it was not the driving force, the sources said. NRA officials, Republican lawmakers and conservative allies together strategized ways to change the President’s mind over strengthening background checks.

Following the shootings, Trump stopped reaching out to his usual Republican allies who he knew didn’t agree with the position he’d taken while calling for stronger background checks. He has since started making his regular calls again, multiple people familiar with the dynamic said. …

Trump has also heard from his own team that expanding background checks is not going to play well with his base. Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought is one strong opponent of background checks internally, two White House officials have said, and he has expressed his opposition to Trump. His concerns, shared by many within the White House, is that a background check expansion would gain him few points politically but actively hurt him among his actual supporters.

That makes Trump’s initial embrace of expanded background checks rather foolish, and should call into question the wisdom of having Ivanka as a political adviser. These political calculations were obvious from the very start and should have been considered before going public. Rather than provide a consistent approach to leadership in the wake of the shooting, Trump has made himself look tentative and defensive, not to mention under the thrall of special-interest groups.

CNN’s interpretation makes sense, too, as both CNN and the Washington Post report that Trump seems ready to move forward with red-flag laws. The NRA opposes those in practice (although not in theory), but they have much more support within the GOP than the largely non-responsive expanded background checks. Red-flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection order laws or ERPOs, are also more popular among Republican voters in a new poll noted by NPR:

Strong majorities of Americans from across the political spectrum support laws that allow family members or law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove guns from a person who is seen to be a risk to themselves or others, according to a new APM Research Lab/Guns & America/Call To Mind survey. …

Overall, 77% of Americans surveyed support family-initiated ERPOs, and 70% support them when initiated by law enforcement, according to the survey, which was conducted before the recent Texas and Ohio shootings. There is broad support among Republicans and gun owners for these types of laws, the poll found. Two-thirds of Republicans and 60% of gun owners support allowing police to seek the court orders; higher percentages — 70% of Republicans and 67% of gun owners — support allowing family members to seek them.

There is broad support among men and women, but there is a gender gap — with more women in favor of red flag laws than men. There are also regional differences, with a smaller percentage in the West (though still a majority) supportive of these laws. Support for the laws also increases the higher the level of educational attainment.

There are some serious concerns over due process with red-flag laws, but those could get worked out in the statutes. Trump’s desire to get something done will likely now get channeled into this effort, one which will likely not satisfy Trump’s critics but will allow Trump to be seen as taking action in a crisis. That’s what matters most to Trump.

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