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Congress Can’t Get A Deal On Gun Background Checks Without Donald Trump

The attorney general is making the pitch to Republicans to expand background checks, but everything hinges on whether Trump will get behind it.

Posted on September 18, 2019, at 4:39 p.m. ET

Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

US President Donald Trump speaks on Sept. 18, 2019, at Los Angeles International Airport.

After a summer of mass shootings, the White House and Congress are working on a plan to require background checks for all commercial firearm sales, but there is utter confusion about whether a deal is on the cusp of being reached or going nowhere.

That’s because it all comes down to whether or not President Donald Trump will throw his weight behind a gun control package, and no one seems to know what he will support, if anything.

Attorney General Bill Barr is meeting with Congressional Republicans this week to gauge their support for a plan to require background checks for gun show sales and online firearm sales from commercial retailers. About 1 in 5 gun sales in America currently involve no background check according to Brady, a gun control advocacy group.

The plan, first reported by the Daily Caller, would not ban private gun sales and would make it illegal to create any registry of gun purchases.

But while the framework may have come from the White House, it is not the White House’s plan. Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley told media that Trump has not endorsed expanded background checks and there is no official administration proposal. Barr told reporters on the Hill that the document simply represented “some ideas.”

AG Bill Barr stops in Senate basement to chat with press, saying he’s on the Hill “just kicking around some ideas” on guns, but that Trump has made no final decision

This sets up a chicken-and-egg paradox, where the White House is asking Republicans if they’ll support something Trump isn’t endorsing, while the Republican caucus has made it clear they won’t support anything unless the president endorses it.

“Nothing is real until the president of the United States provides legislative text. Everything else is written in the wind,” said Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz.

There are also concerns on the other side of the aisle. Any gun control bill will need substantial Democrartic support, but the deal being discussed does not cover private sales and thus falls well short of the “universal” background checks sought by many progressives. A bill could lose Democratic votes, particularly in the House, if it is seen as being watered down too much.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin compared the dynamic to House Democrats being on third base and fighting to run home, whereas the Senate was just trying to get to first base.

Trump flirted with passing gun control measures after the Parkland, Florida, shooting but backed off after extensive lobbying from the National Rifle Association. But talks were revived after a summer of mass shootings that saw 31 people killed and four dozen more injured across shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in back-to-back days. In late August, seven more were killed and 25 were injured in a mass shooting in West Texas, between Midland and Odessa.

But again Trump spoke at length with NRA president Wayne LaPierre and again he came out of the meeting reciting NRA talking points blaming mass shootings on mental health.

While it’s only a fraction of what Democrats have called for, expanding background checks to all commercial sales would be one of the most substantial pieces of gun control in decades. Polls consistently show expanded background checks are wildly popular, with support hitting as high as 90%.

Some Republicans are expressing skepticism. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said Wednesday before his meeting with Barr that he views expanding background checks as curtailing the rights of gun owners. “The proposition is that if we further curtail a fundamental right of the American people that it will inexplicably lead to reduced mass shootings,” he said. “My response very respectfully is ‘ok, prove it.’”

One thing that is certain is that no gun control bill will get a floor vote in the Senate unless Trump endorses it. “I want to know is what the President supports. It’s not unimportant to my members,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Until we get that kind of guidance we’re in a holding pattern.”

Given Trump’s track record, Democrats remain skeptical that this time will be different. (Asked if this was the breakthrough they’d been waiting for, Sen. Schatz laughed loudly and then specified that the laugh was on the record.) But Sen. Chris Murphy said he’s more optimistic than he was even as recently as Monday.

“Talks are ramping up, not ramping down,” said Murphy.

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