President Donald Trump has left Congress in the lurch once again, this time seeming to retreat just days after endorsing gun safety legislation to try to end the nation’s grim succession of school-shooting massacres.
Trump’s surprise embrace last Wednesday of gun-control measures opposed by the National Rifle Association, including a higher age limit for buying assault weapons, briefly reset the debate. Companies also raced to sever ties with the pro-gun lobby. Then the president’s position seemed to melt — just as it had on immigration legislation weeks earlier — after a private Thursday dinner with the NRA’s top lobbyist and Vice President Mike Pence.
Now senators who days ago were eyeing a speedy and narrow floor debate on gun-purchase background checks instead, under a timeline set by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will consider an unrelated banking measure this week.
If Republicans let the issue slip away and do nothing “we’re going to get hurt because most Americans believe we should solve problems that Americans are facing like gun violence and school safety problems,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “If we don’t take this up and Democrats don’t work with us, we will all suffer, and we should.”
The president and lawmakers are trailing national sentiment on guns. Companies have ended assault-weapon sales and backing out of offering deals for NRA members, while students from the Parkland, Florida, high school where 17 people were killed Feb. 14 plan a “March for Our Lives” this month in Washington.
Ride-hailing service Lyft said Friday it will provide free rides for participants in the March 24 gun control demonstrations. Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart raised their firearms purchasing age to 21 and Dick’s said it would no longer carry assault-style rifles. And companies including Symantec, Hertz Global Holdings and MetLife ended NRA-tied discounts. Outdoor goods retailers REI and Mountain Equipment Co-op said they’re cutting ties to Vista Outdoor, whose holdings include firearm manufacturer Savage Arms.
“We believe that it is the job of companies that manufacture and sell guns and ammunition to work towards common sense solutions that prevent the type of violence that happened in Florida last month,” REI said in a statement, adding that Vista so far hasn’t articulated a “clear path of action.”
Some companies are already seeing a backlash and at least one is shifting tack. Delta Air Lines said Friday it’s considering ending discounts for all “politically divisive” groups after a firestorm over its decision to terminate a deal with the NRA. After Atlanta-based Delta’s decision to end its marketing program with the NRA, Georgia lawmakers scuttled a jet-fuel tax exemption from legislation.
Risk grows on Capitol Hill that there may be no legislative response to the Florida shooting, although even the most ardent backers of gun control say the door remains open.
“Trump may not end up leading congressional Republicans to water on guns, but his willingness to buck the gun lobby in public, rule out the NRA agenda, and talk up background checks, has changed this debate nationally,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said on Twitter after reports that Trump dined with NRA lobbyist Chris Cox. Murphy’s state was the site of the 2012 massacre of 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Still, many lawmakers are complaining about the mixed signals. On Wednesday, the president stunned both sides during the meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers by endorsing steps opposed by the NRA — including comprehensive legislation to expand background checks and raising the age limit to buy assault weapons to 21.
Trump even contradicted Pence on measures to seize firearms from those deemed mentally ill or dangerous by saying he wants to “take the guns first, go through due process second.”
Trump suggested at the meeting that a background-check proposal by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., could be the backbone of a comprehensive measure. But White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Friday that he’s not “fully on board” with it. She told Fox News that the president won’t say what legislation he would sign until he sees what lawmakers produce.
“Until it gets in its final stage, we are not going to weigh in,” she said.
In the House, Republican conservatives are keeping the pressure on party leaders to side with the NRA. Members are continuing to demand that any legislation also allow concealed-weapon permits to apply across state lines. Democrats reject that as a “poison pill.”
“I think we’ll be all right when this all shakes out,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, said something should be done to make schools safer but is skeptical of gun-control measures. “Reactionary, knee-jerk gun-control legislation I think will do nothing to make our schools safer and will simply just take away some of our constitutional rights,” he said.
Congress has done very little to respond to mass shootings that have gripped the nation since the 1999 attack at Colorado’s Columbine High School killed 12 students and a teacher and left two dozen more injured.
In nearly 20 years since then, calls for stricter gun legislation have almost always been blocked. One exception to that came in response to the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, when a senior suffering from mental illness killed 32 people and wounded 17 others. Congress passed a bill closing loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that allowed the student to buy firearms even though a Virginia court had ruled him a danger to himself.
A number of measures failed after the Sandy Hook shootings, including the Toomey-Manchin bill mandating background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows and over the internet. Other failed proposals included an assault-weapons ban and measures to address mental illness and ban “straw purchasers” — people who buy weapons for others.
Congress also didn’t act after two 2015 non-school mass shootings, one during a Bible study session at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and another at a Christmas party for public health-department employees in San Bernardino County, California.
The debate after the Columbine shootings initially seemed to have momentum. The Senate in 1999 voted 51-50 to add gun controls to a juvenile crime bill. That included a requirement that all guns have safety locks and imposing a three-day waiting period on sales at gun shows to allow background checks. Yet the proposals died in the House, even after the pressure of a “Million Mom March” in Washington and more than 70 other cities.
This time, Florida students who survived the slaughter of their classmates hope for a different outcome. So far, the website for their effort claims to have 320 events planned worldwide on March 24. Celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and George Clooney have said they’ve pledged $500,000 each to help fund it.