After meeting with NRA chief, Trump backs away from background checks

After conferring with Don Jr. and NRA head Wayne LaPierre, president once again backing away from new gun laws

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published August 20, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Wayne LaPierre (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump and Wayne LaPierre (Getty Images/Salon)

President Trump appears to have backed away from his support for expanded background checks for gun purchases after lobbying from the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.

Trump pushed for “very meaningful background checks” after the shootings, arguing that he had “greater influence now over the Senate and over the House” than he did when he endorsed a similar proposal before dropping it following a lobbying effort from the NRA. 

Now Trump appears to be backing off once again after NRA chief Wayne LaPierre and other gun rights activists lobbied him against supporting an expanded background checks bill during his two-week “working vacation” in Bedminster, New Jersey, The New York Times reported. 

Trump made no mention of the “ very strong background checks” he promised while speaking to reporters Sunday en route back to the White House. Trump said he is “very, very concerned with the Second Amendment, more so than most presidents would be.”

“People don’t realize we have very strong background checks right now,” he said, before repeating the frequently cited NRA talking point that gun violence is a mental health problem.

“I don’t want people to forget that this is a mental health problem,” Trump said. “I don’t want them to forget that, because it is. It’s a mental health problem.”

He similarly repeated another NRA bumper-sticker line at a rally in New Hampshire last week, declaring, “It is not the gun that pulls the trigger, it is the person holding the gun.”

Trump has apparently soured on background checks in private as well. He has “sounded less aggressive” in discussions with aides, the Times reported, “a change that coincided with the NRA mounting a full-court press.”

Along with LaPierre, Donald Trump Jr., whom the president has referred to as his “gun expert,” also lobbied his father against supporting expanded background checks legislation. Trump Jr., like LaPierre, reportedly argued that supporting gun control legislation would alienate the president’s base.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “President Trump, feeling public pressure in the immediate aftermath of a horrible shooting, talks about doing something meaningful to address gun violence, but inevitably, he backtracks in response to pressure from the NRA and the hard right.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Trump to “listen to the 90 percent of American people who support universal background checks.”

John Feinblatt, who heads the pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, said it was not surprising that Trump was once again kowtowing to the NRA. He questioned whether the president is overestimating the diminishing influence of the gun lobby.

“If I were a Republican senator up in 2020, I’d be asking myself three things,” Feinblatt told the Times. “How many women are in my state who expect me to be voting on gun safety, how many young people are expecting me to do something to protect them, and how bad the dumpster fire is over at N.R.A. headquarters.”

The NRA, which is mired in an internal power struggle and a legal battle with its longtime PR firm while facing multiple investigations in New York and Washington, has never been less popular. A Fox News poll released last week showed the NRA with a negative net rating for the first time in the poll’s history. 

The same poll found that 90 percent of voters supported expanded background checks, 81 percent supported “red flag” laws that allow courts to remove guns from dangerous people, and 67 percent supported an assault weapons ban. 

Though Trump insisted that his administration would still “look very strongly” at background checks, The Daily Beast reports that talks between lawmakers and the White House on the issue have stalled. “There is nothing happening,” a Democratic aide said.

A White House official told the outlet that Trump’s attention is already drifting elsewhere because the background-check fight is too difficult.

“He’s started to move on,” the official said. “He loses patience quickly.”

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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