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GOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan

Senate Republicans are treading cautiously on a background checks plan floated by Attorney General William BarrBill BarrPolice accountability board concludes that Seattle police officers used excessive force during encounters with protesters Trump hasn't asked Barr to open investigation into Bidens, McEnany says Seattle, Portland, NYC sue Trump administration over threat to pull federal money 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 TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 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 HawleyInfrastructure, energy investments urgently needed to create U.S. jobs Justice Department charges Google with illegally maintaining search monopoly Conservatives seize on New York Post story to push Section 230 reform 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) ManchinSusan Collins and the American legacy Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw MORE (D-W.Va.) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy 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 CoonsBipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning Schumer says he had 'serious talk' with Feinstein, declines to comment on Judiciary role Durbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority 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 CruzSenate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Democrats play defense, GOP goes on attack after Biden oil comments Quinnipiac poll finds Biden, Trump tied in Texas 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 GrassleyOn The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Grassley: Voters should be skeptical of Biden's pledge to not raise middle class taxes GOP to Trump: Focus on policy 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 GrahamTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day Lou Dobbs goes after Lindsey Graham: 'I don't know why anyone' would vote for him  MORE (R-S.C.), Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBiden's oil stance jars Democrats in tough races The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in The Hill's Campaign Report: Obama to hit the campaign trail l Biden's eye-popping cash advantage l New battleground polls favor Biden MORE (R-Texas), Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsSunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day BlackPAC rolls out Senate race endorsements for the first time Republicans scramble to shore up support in Ga. as Democrats gain MORE (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsSenate Health Committee chair asks Cuomo, Newsom to 'stop second guessing' FDA on vaccine efficacy Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day Trump hasn't asked Barr to open investigation into Bidens, McEnany says 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 MurphyOvernight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Senate Democrats seek to alleviate public concern about some results not being available on election night 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 CollinsTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Murkowski says she will vote to confirm Barrett to Supreme Court on Monday Biden's oil stance jars Democrats in tough races 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.