Saying he wants a “strong” response to the Florida high school massacre, President Trump urged lawmakers Wednesday to move forward with a Senate bill to expand background checks on gun purchases, legislation that was defeated in 2013 with opposition from the National Rifle Association.
In a White House meeting that was televised live, the president told a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate that Washington must take bold action after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people.
“Don’t be shy,” Mr. Trump said. “We have to do something about it. We can’t wait and play games and nothing gets done. It can be ended and it will be ended.”
The president also sparked a furious response on social media from conservatives and gun owners by saying that he would go so far as ignoring due-process rights to confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous.
“I like taking the guns early, like in this crazy man’s case that just took place in Florida … to go to court would have taken a long time,” Mr. Trump said. “Take the guns first, go through due process second.”
Among those criticizing the president’s comment on gun confiscation was Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican.
“Strong leaders don’t automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them,” Mr. Sasse said. “We have the Second Amendment and due process of law for a reason. We’re not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the president talked to today doesn’t like them.”
The NRA dismissed Mr. Trump’s sentiment as political theater.
“While today’s meeting made for great TV, the gun control proposals discussed would make for bad policy that would not keep our children safe,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said in a statement. “Instead of punishing law-abiding gun owners for the acts of a deranged lunatic our leaders should pass meaningful reforms that would actually prevent future tragedies.”
The White House is expected to come out Thursday with its proposals for enhancing school safety, including the president’s previously stated support for a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut that would strengthen the FBI’s database for checking on individuals’ criminal records.
But the biggest surprise of the hour-long meeting came when Mr. Trump expressed support for using a different bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, as the foundation for any congressional action on guns.
The Manchin-Toomey legislation, opposed by the NRA, would expand background checks to all gun sales, including gun shows and internet sales.
President Obama pushed for the bill after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 first-graders and six adults in December 2012. The measure had 54 votes in the Senate but failed to attain the required threshold of 60 votes.
Turning to Mr. Cornyn, the president asked of his more limited legislation, “Can you merge it into Joe and Pat’s bill? Because I like it much better. I’d rather have a comprehensive bill. I think they work together.”
Mr. Cornyn replied that “the most important thing is to act,” but he questioned whether the Manchin-Toomey measure could get enough support.
The president also asked Mr. Toomey whether his bill would raise the legal age limit for purchasing certain long guns from 18 to 21, another proposal opposed by the NRA. Mr. Toomey replied, “We don’t address it.”
“You know why, because you’re afraid of the NRA,” Mr. Trump retorted.
Mr. Toomey said he has a “reservation” about raising the age limit because he believes it would punish law-abiding gun owners unnecessarily.
“The vast majority of 18, 19, and 20-year olds in Pennsylvania who have a rifle or a shotgun, they’re not a threat to anyone,” Mr. Toomey told the president. “They’re law-abiding citizens. They have that because they want to use it for hunting or target shooting, and to deny them their Second Amendment right is not going to make anyone safer.”
Mr. Manchin told the president that their legislation will pass if he supports it.
Mr. Trump said of the failed vote in 2013 under Mr. Obama, “And you didn’t have a lot of presidential backup?”
“That was our problem,” Mr. Manchin replied.
Mr. Toomey added, “President Obama did support it, but …”
“But that was your problem,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Toomey agreed, saying, “there was a worry that he wanted to go further, frankly, and — and that was a concern for some of our guys.”
Mr. Obama was vocal in pushing for the Manchin-Toomey bill after the Sandy Hook massacre. On the day the Senate failed to pass it, he held a televised news conference in the White House Rose Garden with Sandy Hook families, calling it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”
At the time, Mr. Obama blamed the NRA and its allies for stoking fears that he wanted to create a national registry of gun owners.
While Mr. Trump seemed unenthused by Calfornia Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s pitch for renewing the federal ban on assault weapons, Democrats seemed delighted overall with Mr. Trump’s pronouncements on gun measures.
“I want to commend the president for going far beyond the [Cornyn-Murphy bill],” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York. “The president’s comments indicate that he supports universal background checks and even possibly an assault weapons ban.”
He said Mr. Trump now “must push congressional Republicans to resist the NRA and support these proposals which are endorsed by the overwhelming majority of Americans. Only when we achieve these changes in legislation will America be safer.”
The gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety also liked what the president had to say.
“The president today called for sweeping gun violence reform that would meet the moment of public sentiment after the tragedy in Parkland,” said Everytown President John Feinblatt. “He called for changes that a majority of Americans support. But words alone are not enough.”
After the meeting, Mr. Cornyn said he still believes that his bill to add more felons’ names to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System is “the most obvious place to start” because it has 46 co-sponsors in the Senate. Having voted against Manchin-Toomey five years ago, Mr. Cornyn said he needs “to go back and reacquaint myself” with the details of that bill.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican who also voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill in 2013, said after the White House meeting that “I just don’t think it’s likely” the Manchin-Toomey measure can serve as a likely basis for overall school-safety legislation.
But he added, “I don’t know what the votes are now. I think everyone’s in favor of stronger background checks.”
“I’m not inclined to vote for it now unless it’s part of a broader package of things that are better for the country than what we have now, but on its own I wouldn’t because none of these mass shootings were [committed] by someone who bought a gun [at a] gun show or a parking lot,” Mr. Rubio said.
Mr. Toomey said after the meeting that he believes the Senate is more likely to vote for his bill in the wake of the Florida shooting than it was in 2013.
“It does feel as though the atmosphere has changed,” Mr. Toomey said. “It does feel to me as though there are members who were not willing to do something in the past that might be willing now. I know for a fact that there are individuals who voted against Manchin-Toomey, for instance, who have told me that they are reconsidering.”
Florida shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, 19, purchased his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle legally. But he had a history of behavioral problems and run-ins with police. The president said any action by Congress to protect students must address access to firearms by the mentally ill.
The president outlined his proposals, which are expected to be unveiled Thursday. Among them is allowing more qualified school personnel to carry guns.
“First we must harden our schools against attack,” the president said. “You’ve got to have defense too. You can’t just be sitting ducks.”
The president is also supporting a bill from Florida Reps. John Rutherford, a Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Democrat, called the Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing School Violence Act. It would “create a grant program to train students, teachers, school officials, and local law enforcement how to identify and intervene early when signs of violence arise, create a coordinated reporting system, and implement FBI and Secret Service-based school threat assessment protocols to prevent school shootings before they happen,” according to Mr. Rutherford’s office.
When Rep. Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, pushed during the White House meeting for expanding conceal-carry permits, the president interrupted him.
“I’m with you, but let it be a separate bill,” said Mr. Trump, who has been an advocate of conceal-carry permits. “You’ll never get it passed. We want to get something done.”
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