GOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan

Senate Republicans are treading cautiously on a background checks plan floated by Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham Barr DOJ says surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Page lacked evidence Senators press DHS over visa approval for Pensacola naval base shooter Democrats sharpen case on second day of arguments MORE that has been decried as a “non-starter” by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Barr floated the proposal to GOP offices on Wednesday as the Senate inches toward doing something on gun control amid growing public pressure created by a seemingly endless string of mass shootings.

But Barr was careful to tell Republicans that his memo on background checks, titled “Idea for New Unlicensed-Commercial-Sale Background Checks,” did not have the backing of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sen. Van Hollen releases documents from GAO investigation MORE

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“I’m up here just kicking around some ideas, getting perspectives so I can be in a better position to advise the president,” Barr told reporters. “But the president has made no decision yet.”

GOP lawmakers, for their part, were decidedly noncommittal, with several saying they still wanted to hear what Trump would back.

“It’s one thing to have a few ideas on paper,” said Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on MORE (R-Mo.), who met with Barr and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland on Tuesday.

“But in terms of actually being a concrete proposal where you can say, ‘How do you feel about this?’ I need to see a lot,” Hawley told reporters, summarizing his meeting with Barr.

“My question was, where’s the president on this? Is this something — I asked that question directly — is this something the president supports?”

Hawley said Ueland couldn’t say whether Trump backs the Department of Justice (DOJ) proposal.

“That’s an important piece, because if the president doesn’t support it, there’s no point. It’s not going to become law,” he added. 

The NRA moved quickly to dismiss the proposal, which would expand background checks along the lines of a 2013 amendment to a gun violence bill that was sponsored by Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump's trial a major test for McConnell, Schumer Poll: West Virginia voters would view Manchin negatively if he votes to convict Trump Pelosi set to send impeachment articles to the Senate next week MORE (D-W.Va.) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.).

“This missive is a non-starter with the NRA and our 5 million members because it burdens law-abiding gun owners while ignoring what actually matters: fixing the broken mental health system and the prosecution of violent criminals,” said Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.

Like Manchin-Toomey, the proposal would expand background checks for all gun sales over the internet and at gun shows. It would create a new class of licensed transfer agents, who would be empowered to conduct background checks for commercial sales in addition to federally licensed firearms dealers.

Under the proposal, licensed transfer agents would not have an inventory of guns to sell but would be authorized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to conduct background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

It would require that all commercial gun sales produce two forms, a bill of sale that would record the details of the sale, and a certification from either a licensed firearms dealer or transfer agent recording that a successful background check has taken place.

In addition, if someone attempts to buy a firearm and fails a background check, that person would be reported to law enforcement officials — an idea that Toomey has introduced in a separate bill co-sponsored with Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill Bezos phone breach escalates fears over Saudi hacking Democrats shoot down talk of Bolton, Hunter Biden witness swap MORE (D-Del.).

A White House official on Wednesday said the memo was produced by the Department of Justice.

Toomey on Wednesday praised Barr’s effort to stimulate debate among Senate Republicans.

“I think he has advanced some ideas that are very constructive, very thoughtful, and could go a long way toward expanding background checks in a way that poses absolute minimal inconvenience on law-abiding citizens and increases the chances that we would keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people who shouldn’t have them,” he said.

But the reaction from conservatives suggested the missive is unlikely to win Trump’s support or become law.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDemocrats sharpen case on second day of arguments What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial Democrats' impeachment case lands with a thud with GOP — but real audience is voters MORE (R-Texas), who also met with Barr on Tuesday, warned that Democrats could use an expansion of background checks as a step toward confiscating guns. Just last week, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, whose home city of El Paso, Texas, was the site of a mass shooting in August, embraced the idea of confiscating AR-15s and AK-47s during a debate.

“Of the 10 Democrats on stage running for president, three are explicitly supporting gun confiscation by the federal government,” Cruz said Wednesday after Senate Republicans discussed gun control proposals at a weekly lunch meeting.

“If we want to stop crimes, we need to focus on the bad guys, not the good guys,” he warned.

He argued a better path would be to pass legislation he has sponsored with Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump to sign USMCA next Wednesday Trump administration releases rule to restrict 'birth tourism' On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Grassley signs USMCA, sending it to Trump's desk | Union membership falls to record low | Manufacturers want Trump tax provision made permanent | Warren presses banks on climate plans MORE (R-Iowa) that would plug holes in the national criminal background check system and crack down on straw purchasers of firearms who help pass along guns to prohibited individuals.

Barr’s proposal attempts to allay concerns about the future creation of a national firearms registry by limiting the paperwork requirements.

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Under the Justice Department’s plan, if the buyer of a firearm passes the background check and purchases the weapon, the person who sells it would receive a copy of the form certifying a successful background check.

Licensed gun dealers and transfer agents would not maintain these records, a provision intended to calm the fears of Second Amendment advocates. The record-keeping requirements of the proposal would be enforced by civil penalties. People who sell guns using a transfer agent would be granted the same civil immunity as federally licensed firearms dealers, according to the Justice memo.

Barr has also met with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDemocrats hammer abuse of power charge, allege Trump put self over country Video becomes vital part of Democrats' case against Trump Nadler plays 1999 clip of Graham defining high crimes: 'It doesn't even have to be a crime' MORE (R-S.C.), Sen. John CornynJohn CornynNadler gets under GOP's skin Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Democrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public MORE (R-Texas), Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules This week: Raucous rules fight, opening arguments in impeachment trial White House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team MORE (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsSchumer urges declassification of letter from Pence aide Republicans take aim at Nadler for saying GOP senators complicit in 'cover-up' The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules MORE (R-N.C.), a prominent House conservative and close Trump ally.

Democrats were left out of Barr’s initial round of consultations.

“Not a single Democrat has seen this or signed off on it and my understanding is the president hasn’t approved it either. It’s hard to know whether this is constructive or not,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Nadler gets under GOP's skin Senate Republicans muscle through rules for Trump trial MORE (Conn.), a leading Democratic negotiator on the issue of preventing gun violence.

Only four Senate Republicans voted for the Manchin-Toomey proposal in 2013 and only two of them, Toomey and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Senate Republicans confident they'll win fight on witnesses Susan Collins asked Justice Roberts to intervene after Nadler late-night 'cover-up' accusation MORE (R-Maine), are still in Congress.

Barr met with Murphy, Toomey and Manchin early Wednesday evening, but the three senators said afterward that they were still in the dark about when Trump will make a decision.

“It’s up to the president now to decide what he’s comfortable with and what he decides to go forward with,” Manchin said.

Asked if Barr indicated how Trump felt about the DOJ background check proposal, Toomey added with a laugh, “No, is the short version.”

 

— Scott Wong contributed to this report.