The National Rifle Association (NRA) may be down, but it’s not out — and the group appears to have been successful in lobbying the most important player in the gun control debate.
After saying earlier this month that he wants “very meaningful background checks” on gun purchasers, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: ‘Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list’ Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE has since changed his tune. He argued Tuesday that the U.S. already has “very strong background checks” and that officials need to be wary of a potential “slippery slope” where “everything gets taken away.”
Democrats attribute that shift, and the language he used, to the work of the NRA.
“My expectations that the president will break with the gun lobby and support bipartisan gun reforms were always low, but the speed with which he retreated on the statements he made earlier this month has been remarkable,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in a statement to The Hill on Tuesday.
“The NRA is losing money and board members to corruption and mismanagement, but they clearly still have a vise grip on the president,” he added.
The NRA in recent months has seen a decline in membership, a leadership exodus, allegations of misspending and a power struggle among its top ranks. On Tuesday, three additional NRA officials reportedly resigned.
But in the wake of this month’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 dead, the NRA has flexed its muscles.
In the days after Trump offered his initial support for background checks legislation, he faced intense lobbying from gun rights groups. During a recent 10-day stay at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Trump reportedly spoke to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO, according to The New York Times.
Trump later called LaPierre on Tuesday to tell him that universal background checks were off the table and that he wanted to focus on mental health care funding and prosecuting gun crime, according to The Atlantic.
The NRA tweeted a statement from LaPierre confirming the conversation.
“I spoke to the president today. We discussed the best ways to prevent these types of tragedies. @realDonaldTrump is a strong #2A President and supports our Right to Keep and Bear Arms!” LaPierre said, referring to the Second Amendment.
The White House pushed back on The Atlantic’s article.
“The president has not mentioned supporting universal background checks. Meaningful background checks remain on the table. The President and Wayne did speak today as the NRA’s tweet confirms,” a White House official said in an email.
Trump’s shift took shape on Sunday. He told reporters that a lot of discussions on gun reforms were happening on Capitol Hill but also focused on mental health.
“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,” Trump told reporters before boarding Marine One. “It’s the people that pull the trigger; it’s not the gun that pulls the trigger.”
On Tuesday, he warned about the “slippery slope” of gun laws, language closely mirroring the NRA’s long-held position that even modest gun control regulations would eventually lead to stricter ones.
Those types of remarks have deflated the hopes of gun reform advocates such as Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper’s Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces White House eyes September action plan for gun proposals Trump phoned Democratic senator to talk gun control MORE (D-Conn.).
“I did talk to him about a week ago. In that conversation, he expressed support for working together with Republicans and Democrats to come up with a background checks bill,” Murphy said Tuesday on MSNBC. “I’m sure the NRA and its allies are putting a lot of pressure on the president to back off.”
How Trump handles this latest push for gun legislation will be a test of his character and where his loyalties lie, according to some Democrats.
“The president has to decide what’s more important to him, saving lives or being there for the gun lobby,” Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchHouse Democrats urge Trump to end deportations of Iraqis after diabetic man’s death House conservatives call for ethics probe into Joaquin Castro tweet Democratic leaders seek to have it both ways on impeachment MORE (D-Fla.) said Tuesday in a phone interview. “There’s just no other explanation. If he can’t stand up to the NRA, he’s a coward and he should be ashamed of himself.”
Congressional Democrats say they have been down this road before with the president.
In February 2018, after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Trump expressed support for background checks legislation. But after the NRA intervened, Trump quickly pivoted to promoting tougher school security measures.
Deutch recalled a meeting in the White House following Parkland when Trump “pointed his finger at the Republicans in the room and said the only reason that we hadn’t passed background checks is because they’re terrified of the NRA.”
“I believe he called them cowards,” Deutch said. “If the president walks back from the statements he made after El Paso and Dayton to take up background checks, then he’s the biggest coward in the government.”
Murphy said he’s still holding out hope that Trump will pursue screening for gun purchasers.
“Until I hear directly from him, I’m not willing to concede that history repeated itself and that he has walked away from the commitment he made,” Murphy said in a statement Tuesday. “But it’s time for Republicans and President Trump to decide whose side they’re on. Are they going to stand with the 90 percent of Americans who want universal background checks, or are they going to once again kowtow to the desires of the gun lobby?”
Other Democrats are much more downbeat about the likelihood of any gun bills getting through Congress, particularly the GOP-controlled Senate and Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi, Schumer press for gun screenings as Trump inches away The malware election: Returning to paper ballots only way to prevent hacking First House Republican backs bill banning assault weapons MORE (R-Ky.).
“Trump and McConnell are both in lockstep with the NRA, and they will not want [Trump] to do anything. And much of the Trump base is against any changes,” Rep. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenHouse Democrats inch toward majority support for impeachment The Hill’s Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony This week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill MORE (D-Tenn.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, said during an appearance on CNN.
The House Judiciary Committee will return to Washington from the August recess five days early, on Sept. 4, to mark up measures prohibiting high-capacity magazines, banning people convicted of hate crimes from owning guns, and supporting states that approve “red flag” laws to confiscate firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiJohnson eyes Irish border in Brexit negotiations Mueller report fades from political conversation Five key players in Trump’s trade battles MORE (D-Calif.) is expected to bundle several of the guns bills together and push the legislation through the House after lawmakers return on Sept. 9. That effort is designed to ramp up political pressure on Trump and McConnell.
Cohen predicted the gun bills “won’t go anywhere.”
Asked what it will take to push gun reforms through Congress despite opposition from the NRA, Cohen pointed to voters casting their ballots for new leaders in November 2020.
“It takes a new president. It takes a new Senate majority leader,” he said. “It takes the people of the country coming to grips with the fact that we have a leader who is not capable of leading this country.”
Updated at 6:51 p.m.