President Donald Trump will unveil a series of proposals — including suggested changes to background checks — in the coming weeks, according to the White House, following mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.
It remains unclear exactly what Trump will recommend, though, adding little clarity to the president’s confounding remarks on the subject in recent weeks. Trump and his aides on Wednesday would only say that the president will offer ways to close “loopholes” in the background check system, while declining to reveal any details.
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The White House did not give a timetable for the proposals — which will likely include other legislation and executive actions addressing domestic terrorism, violent video games and mental health treatment — but suggested that the package would be timed to Congress’s return in early September. The president received a formal briefing on Tuesday from his staff about the possible options, according to a White House official.
Trump has baffled lawmakers and advocacy groups for weeks with his comments on gun control. At times, the president has appeared to want to expand background checks for gun purchasers, but then at other times has emphasized the country’s “very strong background checks” and stressed the need to focus on mental health treatment.
On Wednesday, Trump and multiple White House aides accused several media outlets of inaccurately reporting that Trump had told gun rights advocates he would not push to expand background checks. They noted that while the president has never expressed support for “universal” background checks, he has also not backed away from a commitment to exploring other changes.
“There are all types of background checks,” said Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway. “If somebody is disturbed, if someone needs treatment, if someone should not have a firearm because of a criminal background, a felony, mental health issues, we have to make sure those folks do not procure firearms. But we cannot confiscate weapons from Americans who are procuring them and using them legally without due process. The president is not beholden to the [National Rifle Association] or other gun groups. The president is beholden to the Constitution.”
Conway said Trump could propose changes like those he supported last year, when Congress increased penalties on agencies that do not report information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Trump said earlier Wednesday that the nation’s background check system is “already strong” but that he has “an appetite” for addressing some deficiencies in the federal process he did not identify.
“We have background checks, but there are loopholes in the background checks. That’s what I spoke to the NRA about yesterday,” he said. “They want to get rid of the loopholes as well as I do. At the same time, I don’t want to take away people’s Second Amendment rights.”
Trump denied the NRA had influenced his stance, responding to reports that the president had taken background check changes off the table following a lengthy phone conversation with NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre Tuesday. In recent weeks, Trump has spoken to LaPierre repeatedly, as well as Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
“I didn’t say anything about that,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We had a great talk with Wayne yesterday. Didn’t say anything about that. We just talked about concepts. Wayne agrees things have to be done also.”
The NRA didn’t offer its own readout of the call. “The NRA has a longstanding policy about not discussing private conversations with the press,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
Whatever Trump ultimately offers could affect his 2020 re-election bid. While moving to bolster gun control could help win over the moderate suburban voters Trump needs to win again, such a decision could also alienate his much-needed conservative base.
While White House and congressional aides continue to meet privately to discuss possible gun control actions, advocates remain skeptical he’ll actually propose significant new gun restrictions.
“We have been here before,” said Christian Hayne, vice president of policy for Brady, a group which supports increased background checks. “We have seen the president make comments that were encouraging … and that after one meal with the NRA complete backpedal on those promises. We are prepared for anything.”
Trump has cycled through a head-spinning number of stances on the subject in recent weeks.
On Aug. 7, Trump told reporters that he was “all in favor” of pushing background check legislation, calling the issue “important.” And as recently as a week ago, Trump professed that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who’d been blocking the chamber from bringing up House-passed background check bills, was on board.
“I believe that Mitch — and I can tell you, from my standpoint, I would like to see meaningful background checks. And I think something will happen,” the president said, adding that he had also talked with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the leading gun control advocates in the chamber.
But Trump appeared to back off publicly late last week, deploying talking points often offered by groups like the NRA and providing an opening that Republican lawmakers seized on.
“We are working very hard to make sure we keep guns out of the hands of insane people and those who are mentally sick and shouldn’t have guns,” he said Thursday at a campaign rally in New Hampshire. “But people have to remember, however, that there is a mental illness problem that has to be dealt with. It’s not the gun that pulls the trigger. It’s the person holding the gun.”
Before the rally, he suggested to reporters that he was looking at reopening mental institutions, as well.
After returning to Washington on Sunday from a 10-day sabbatical at his Bedminster resort in New Jersey, Trump told the media that “I don’t want people to forget that this is a mental health problem. People don’t realize we have very strong background checks right now.”
In the Oval Office on Tuesday, Trump appeared to play both sides a bit, simultaneously touting the existing “very strong” background checks, while also citing “missing areas and areas that don’t complete the whole circle.”
On Wednesday he reiterated that position, saying that “I have an appetite for background checks — we’ll be doing background checks. We’re working with Democrats, we’re working with Republicans, and we already have very strong background checks.”
He emphasized, however, that too many changes could create a “slippery slope,” swatting away allegations that such language was an NRA talking point.
“They are Trump talking points,” he said.
So, as is often the case, Trump’s ultimate stance remained opaque at the end of the day.
“I’m concerned that no matter what we agreed to, when we get there, I’m concerned that Democrats will say, ‘Oh, well, we now want this,’” Trump said. “It’s a slippery slope.”