WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump stunned Republicans on live television Wednesday by embracing gun control and urging a group of lawmakers at the White House to resurrect gun safety legislation that has been opposed for years by the powerful National Rifle Association and the vast majority of his party.
In a remarkable meeting in the Roosevelt Room, the president veered wildly from the NRA playbook in front of giddy Democrats and stone-faced Republicans. He called for comprehensive gun control legislation that would expand background checks to weapons purchased at gun shows and on the internet, keep guns from the mentally ill, secure schools and restrict gun sales from some young adults. He even suggested a conversation on an assault weapons ban.
At one point, Trump suggested that law enforcement authorities should have the power to seize guns from mentally ill or other dangerous people without first going to court. “I like taking the guns early,” he said, adding, “take the guns first, go through due process second.”
The president’s declarations prompted a frantic series of calls from NRA lobbyists to their allies on Capitol Hill and a statement from the group calling the ideas Trump expressed “bad policy.” Republican lawmakers issued statements or told reporters they remain opposed to gun control measures.
“We’re not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the President talked to today doesn’t like them,” snapped Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.
Democrats, too, said they were skeptical that Trump will follow through.
“The White House can now launch a lobbying campaign to get universal background checks passed, as the president promised in this meeting, or they can sit and do nothing,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
At the core of Trump’s suggestion was the revival of a bipartisan bill drafted in 2013 by Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat, and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, a Republican, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Despite a concerted push by President Barack Obama and the personal appeals of Sandy Hook parents, the bill fell to a largely Republican filibuster.
The president’s embrace did not immediately yield converts. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that he was unmoved after the meeting, repeating the Republican dogma that recent shootings were not “conducted by someone who bought a gun at a gun show or parking lot.” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican who sat next to Trump looking alternately bemused and flustered, emerged from the meeting and declared, “I thought it was fascinating television and it was surreal to actually be there.”
But Trump suggested that the dynamics in Washington have changed after the Florida school shooting that claimed 17 lives, in part because of his own leadership in the White House, a sentiment that the Democrats in the room readily appeared to embrace as they saw the president supporting their ideas.
“It would be so beautiful to have one bill that everyone could support,” Trump said as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. and a longtime gun control advocate, sat smiling to his left. “It’s time that a president stepped up.”
Democrats tried to turn sometimes muddled presidential musings into firm policy: “You saw the president clearly saying not once, not twice, not three times, but like ten times, that he wanted to see a strong universal background check bill,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. “He didn’t mince words about it. So I do not understand how then he could back away from that.”
Just what the discussion means, and whether Trump will aggressively push for new gun restrictions, remain uncertain given Trump’s history of taking erratic positions on policy issues, especially ones that have long polarized Washington and the country.
The gun control meeting on Wednesday was reminiscent of a similar, televised discussion with lawmakers about immigration in January at which he appeared to back bipartisan legislation to help young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — only to reverse himself and back a hard-line approach that helped scuttle consensus in the Senate.
Trump’s comments during the hourlong meeting were at odds with his history as a candidate and president who has repeatedly declared his love for the Second Amendment and the NRA, which gave his campaign $30 million. At the group’s annual conference last year, Trump declared: “To the NRA, I can proudly say I will never, ever let you down.”
But at the meeting, the president repeatedly rejected the NRA’s top legislative priority, a bill known as “concealed carry reciprocity,” that would allow a person with permission to carry a concealed weapon in one state to automatically do so in every state. To the dismay of Republicans, he dismissed the measure as having no chance at passage in the Congress. Republican leaders in the House had paired that NRA priority with a modest measure to improve data reporting to the existing instant background check system.
“You’ll never get it,” Trump told Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House Republican whip who was gravely injured in a mass shooting last year but still opposes gun restrictions. “You’ll never get it passed. We want to get something done.”
Trump also flatly insisted that legislation should raise the minimum age for purchasing rifles from 18 to 21 — an idea the NRA and many Republicans fiercely oppose. When Toomey pushed back on an increase in the minimum age for rifles, the president accused him of fearing the NRA — a remarkable slap since the NRA withdrew its support for Toomey over his background check bill.
“If there’s a Republican who’s demonstrated he’s not afraid of the NRA, that would be me,” Toomey said after the meeting.
The president appeared eager to challenge the impression that he is bought and paid-for by the gun rights group. While calling the NRA membership “well-meaning,” he also said he told the group’s leaders at a lunch on Sunday that “it’s time. We’re going to stop this nonsense. It’s time.”
Officials at the gun group were taken aback by the president’s comments and immediately ramped up their lobbying against measures they have long said would damage the Second Amendment and do little to protect people against gun violence.
“While today’s meeting made for great TV, the gun control policies discussed would make bad policy that wouldn’t keep our children safer,” said Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA’s lobbying arm. “We are going to continue to work to pass policies that might actually prevent another horrific tragedy.”
But at least for Wednesday, Trump seemed willing to veer far from the NRA script, even seeming to suggest that he might back an ban on assault-style weapons when Feinstein asked what they could do about “weapons of war.” The NRA has helped to defeat an assault weapons ban since the last one expired in 2004.
The reaction in Washington was swift. Breitbart.com, a right-wing site once led by Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s one-time chief strategist, published a story with an all-caps, bright red headline: “TRUMP THE GUN GRABBER.”
The site added that the president “CEDES DEMS’ WISH LIST — BUMP STOCKS, BUYING AGE, ‘ASSAULT WEAPONS,’ BACKGROUND CHECKS. TELLS SCALISE TO TAKE A HIKE — AFTER SURVIVING ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT.”
The president did return several times to a proposal that conservatives like: arming teachers in schools so and ending the “gun free zones” around schools that Trump said had made America’s schools among the most vulnerable targets for mass shooters.
“You’ve got to have defense too,” the president told the lawmakers. “You can’t just be sitting ducks. And that’s exactly what we’ve allowed people in these buildings and schools to be.”
But several times, he acknowledged how controversial that proposal is, and seemed to accept the idea that it might not be included in a comprehensive gun control measure that could pass through both chambers in the Congress.
He also backed a modest measure sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat in the Senate to improve the quality of the data in the background check system. But he told the bill’s author, Cornyn, to consider just adding that proposal to the broader expansion of the background check system.
“It would be nice to add everything on to it,” Trump said. “Maybe change the title. Maybe we could make it much more comprehensive and have one bill.”