Why you should care
Because this time could be different … but don’t bet on it.
You can trace certain pillars of Donald Trump’s presidency back decades. He’s long been a trade protectionist and advocate of tougher immigration policy. On other issues, though, he’s shown a ballerina’s dexterity.
Such as guns.
In his 2000 book The America We Deserve, Trump wrote: “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons, and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.”
At the time, so-called assault weapons — certain types of semiautomatic rifles similar to the kinds used in the Dayton and El Paso massacres — were banned for sale (though with ample loopholes), along with high-capacity magazines. Last weekend’s mass shootings have revived calls to bring back the ban.
These mass shootings — as depressingly common as they’ve become — can still shake the status quo.
But in Trump’s evolution into right-wing hero and wildly successful first-time politician, he’s embraced the National Rifle Association and waxed poetic again and again about the Second Amendment. Gun rights are a core value in rural America, for individual liberty or protection against feral hogs.
It’s similar to his approach to abortion and other religious conservative tenets, in which Trump showed little interest before running for president but has proven powerful in bringing together and maintaining his coalition. (Or as another president once said, rural Americans “cling to guns or religion.”)
While Trump hasn’t yet delivered on gun rights in the way he’s taken on abortion, his greatest gun legacy could be an indirect one by placing conservatives Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. The newcomers could push the high court beyond a landmark 2008 decision declaring an individual right to a firearm and one day have it strike down more state and local restrictions (seven states and the District of Columbia ban assault rifles, for example).
But these mass shootings — as depressingly common as they’ve become — can still shake the status quo. Trump pushed through new restrictions on “bump stocks,” which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire like fully automatic weapons, after the Las Vegas shooter used them.
The bump stocks of 2019 could be “red flag” laws, a fast-track judicial process by which authorities can temporarily take guns away from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. Given the cascade of obvious red flags around the Dayton shooter — who had a “kill list” and a “rape list” for his high school — this would seem to be an obvious move.
On Friday, Trump went further than red flags, hinting at universal background checks. “Frankly, we need intelligent background checks,” he told reporters at the White House. “We don’t want insane people, mentally ill people, bad people, dangerous people — we don’t want guns in the hands of the wrong people.” Proposals to mandate background checks for all private gun transactions have been stalled in the Senate for years, but Trump claimed Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was “on board.”
Keep in mind that he made similar noises with no action after the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting. But there’s been plenty of speculation around whether gun control could be Trump’s “Nixon to China” moment, and whether he could use his enormous sway with the GOP to pull his party along.
On the one hand, he does have a political incentive to act. A growing chorus of Democrats is blaming Trump for the El Paso shooting, effectively a terror attack on Latinos, because the killer’s manifesto sounded Trumplike notes on stopping an immigrant “invasion.” Similarly, the 2018 midterms showed how Republicans are getting wiped out in the suburbs, where gun control is popular. A strong move on gun control could help limit the political damage and show Trump taking positive action. And despite how loud gun rights activists can be, a new Politico/Morning Consult poll out this week found that even most Republicans back these gun control measures: 55 percent support an assault weapons ban, 61 percent support a ban on high-capacity magazines and 90 percent back universal background checks.
But two factors are working strongly against any action of significance: No. 1: Time. Congress is not due back from its August recess for four weeks and showing no signs of returning early. Think of how many crises come and go over four weeks in this presidency. No. 2: Trump’s constant instinct to play to his rally crowds and adoring online legions. Why risk betraying the people who brought him to the dance on the off chance of recruiting new voters, when so much of the country is already dug in?
Gun rights might not be a core conviction for Donald Trump. But winning is.