In the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton two weeks ago, President Trump enthusiastically touted the idea of signing universal background checks into law. Any realistic observer of the hypermercurial president approached his enthusiasm with deep skepticism, given both his history of gun flip-flops and most congressional Republicans’ natural aversion to any new firearm regulation. And sure enough, Trump’s commitment to the cause has seemed to evaporate in the span of a few days.
Politico reports that on Sunday, when a reporter asked the president if he no longer supported background-check legislation, he responded: “I’m not saying anything. I’m saying Congress is going to be reporting back to me with ideas. And they’ll come in from Democrats and Republicans. And I’ll look at it very strongly. But just remember, we already have a lot of background checks.”
Earlier in the exchange, Trump said, “They have bipartisan committees working on background checks and various other things. And we’ll see. I don’t want people to forget that this is a mental health problem. I don’t want them to forget that, because it is. It’s a mental health problem.”
This was a stark contrast from the days just after the devastating Texas and Ohio shootings, which took place hours apart on August 3 and 4. On August 9, Trump said that “on background checks, we have tremendous support for really common-sense, sensible, important background checks,” and added that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was “onboard” — though McConnell never signaled that he was. Trump also said he supports “red flag” laws, which allow authorities to seize firearms from people who have been deemed a threat to public safety. It’s unclear where he stands on that measure at the moment.
In recent days, Trump hasn’t totally retreated from background checks, but has focused more on insisting that mental health is the real problem — a familiar GOP talking point in the aftermath of high-profile gun violence. At his first rally since the shootings, Trump said, “It’s not the gun that pulls the trigger — it’s the person holding the gun,” drawing huge applause from his audience.
The pattern is a familiar one. After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, Trump briefly appeared to warm to several gun-reform proposals before fully re-embracing the NRA and calling for armed teachers instead. The Trump administration did follow through on a proposed ban of bump stocks, the accessory the Las Vegas gunman used to kill dozens in 2017, in what is the deadliest mass shooting in American history, but that accessory is part of a minuscule number of shootings in America.
Universal background checks are among the most popular pieces of gun-reform legislation; a recent Quinnipiac poll put Americans’ support at 97 percent. But in 2013, after the shootings at Sandy Hook, a bill sponsored by Democratic senator Joe Manchin and Republican senator Pat Toomey died in the face of Republican (and some Democratic) opposition in the upper chamber.
Blind enthusiasm for guns is not one of Trump’s core, deeply held convictions, like trade protectionism or racism. Back in 2000, he endorsed an assault-weapons ban. But all indications are that any vestigial opposition he has to permissive gun laws doesn’t carry enough force to survive a few news cycles, much less result in any kind of meaningful achievement.