WASHINGTON – Republicans reacted cautiously Thursday to President Donald Trump’s call for quick and substantial changes to the nation’s gun laws, while elated Democrats said they will try to hold Trump to his promises.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats were “stunned and surprised – many of us pleasantly – by what we saw” from Trump at a televised meeting Wednesday at the White House.
Schumer said he was especially pleased that Trump seemed to endorse universal background checks for gun purchases and even seemed open to a politically controversial ban on assault weapons such as the AR-15 rifle used in last month’s shooting at a Florida high school.
“The president started on the right foot, but we must work together to get it done,” Schumer said Thursday at a news conference where he outlined new Democratic proposals for gun control. “Words alone will not prevent the next mass shooting. One public meeting will not close background check loopholes. One hour of television won’t get assault weapons off our streets.”
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said Trump hosted “an amazing meeting” about how to respond to the deadly Florida shooting, but his legislation to strengthen the federal background check system was “our best and only option to act in response.”
Cornyn and other Republicans have resisted a comprehensive approach to gun legislation, even as Trump and Democrats say more must be done.
Trump held a freewheeling, televised meeting with lawmakers at the White House that stretched for an hour Wednesday, and he rejected both his party’s incremental approach and its strategy that has stalled action on gun legislation.
Giving hope to Democrats, he said he favored a “comprehensive” approach to addressing gun violence.
Trump again voiced support for expanded background checks. He endorsed increased school security and more mental health resources, and he reaffirmed his support for raising the age to 21 for purchasing some firearms. Trump mentioned arming teachers, and said his administration, not Congress, would ban “bump-stock” devices that enable guns to fire like automatic weapons with an executive order.
“We can’t wait and play games and nothing gets done,” Trump told the session with 17 House and Senate lawmakers.
Trump raised eyebrows by suggesting that law enforcement officials should be able to confiscate people’s firearms without a court order to prevent potential tragedies.
“Take the guns first, go through due process second,” he suggested.
Trump arose Thursday with the gun issue on his mind, tweeting that “Many ideas, some good & some not so good,” emerged from the meeting.
He said “Background Checks a big part of conversation” and “Gun free zones are proven targets of killers.”
“After many years, a Bill should emerge,” Trump went on. “Respect 2nd Amendment!”
Trump’s suggestion to take guns away drew immediate criticism from Republicans.
“Is anyone ok with this, because I’m sure as hell not,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., tweeted on Thursday. “I swore an oath to support and defend the constitution. Speak up.” Massie is a conservative who is backed by tea party groups.
The president has previously supported ideas popular with Democrats, only to back away when faced with opposition from his conservative supporters and his GOP allies in Congress. It was not clear whether he would continue to push for swift and significant changes to gun laws, when confronted with the inevitable resistance from his party.
Still, the televised discussion allowed Trump to present himself as a potential dealmaker. Democratic lawmakers appealed to the president to use his political power to persuade his party to take action.
“It is going to have to be you,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told Trump.
Trump’s call for stronger background checks, which are popular among Americans, has been resisted by Republicans and the NRA. Republicans are leaning toward modest legislation designed to improve the background check system. Trump made clear he was looking for more and accused lawmakers of being “petrified” of the gun lobby.
Democrats said they were concerned Trump’s interest may fade quickly. After the meeting, Murphy told reporters: “I’m worried that this was the beginning and the end of the president’s advocacy on this issue. The White House has to put some meat on the bones. The White House has to send a proposal to Congress.”
NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said that while the White House meeting “made for great TV, the gun-control proposals discussed would make for bad policy that would not keep our children safe.”
Trump rejected the way Republican leaders in Congress have framed the debate, saying the House-backed bill linking a background check measure with a bill to expand gun rights by allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines was not the right approach.
The concealed carry measure is the gun lobby’s top legislative priority. But “you’ll never get it passed,” Trump told lawmakers.
He suggested Republicans should focus on the background check bill, then load it up with other gun control and safety measures.
Among those at the meeting were Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who are pushing their bill to broaden background checks to include firearm purchases online and at gun shows. The bill failed in 2013 after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Trump asked Toomey if the bill would raise the minimum age for young people to buy an assault weapon. Toomey told the president it did not.
“You know why,” Trump scoffed. “Because you’re afraid of the NRA.”
In fact, Toomey’s bill was opposed by the NRA. The group downgraded its rating of Toomey as he ran for re-election in 2016.
Toomey said Thursday that Trump called him to express support for the background checks bill “as the core legislative vehicle” for what Congress does on guns.
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