The Memo: Trump's gun pledge met with skepticism

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE says he will act on gun control in the wake of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — but Democrats and liberal activists are skeptical, and even Republicans aren’t convinced. 

Trump said on Friday he would favor “intelligent background checks.” He suggested there was bipartisan support for such an idea and evinced confidence that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPatient advocates launch drug pricing ad campaign Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs War of words at the White House MORE (R-Ky.) was also “on board” with the idea.

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But skeptics point to broadly similar comments the president made on gun control after another mass shooting — when 17 students were killed last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. On that occasion, Trump backed away from substantive action after a meeting with representatives from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Gun control groups doubt that this time will be any different.

“I don’t think Donald Trump has a lot of credibility on gun safety,” said Peter Ambler of Giffords, the gun control group co-founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

“In the aftermath of Parkland, he signaled openness to gun laws, only to see an NRA crack squad head over to the White House and huddle with him. Hours after that, he was desperately backtracking,” he said.

Ambler insisted that “the way for Donald Trump to prove that he is willing to do something on gun control is to stand up to the NRA and actually do it." 

Trump allies, though, insist the president is sincere in his desire to enact some kind of measure that would, at a minimum, strengthen background checks. 

They say that Trump is so trusted by his base — who assume he is four-square behind the Second Amendment’s guarantee of a right to bear arms — that he could sell a deal in ways that other politicians, or past presidents, could not.

“Only Nixon could go to China and only President Trump — irrevocably a supporter of the Second Amendment — could do something to address these tragic gun crimes,” said Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump friend and ally. “I think it is a sincere desire, and I know that he personally recognizes this is a dire issue.”

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There is also the question of how gun control is changing as a political issue. Through much of the 1990s, in particular, the issue was perceived to favor Republicans. Some commentators blamed the passage of an assault weapons ban under former President Clinton in 1994 for heavy Democratic losses in that year’s midterm elections.

Now, however, polls show broad support for stricter gun controls in general, and overwhelming backing for increased background checks. An NBC News/PBS/Marist poll conducted in July found 89 percent support for expanding background checks.

In terms of the bigger picture, there is evidence that Trump and the GOP face mounting challenges with suburban voters, especially women, who may have been put off by the president’s confrontational and often inflammatory style.

Some kind of gun control measure might at least give the president, and Republican congressional candidates, an achievement that could coax those voters back into the fold. 

“Politically, it seems to me that to do something on background checks and red-flag laws makes a lot of sense,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and columnist for The Hill.

But Feehery also questioned whether Democrats were prepared to accept the kind of modest measure that might pass in a Republican Senate — and, in the process, hand Trump a victory with an election year looming.

“Right now, I would put the chances at 50-50,” he said, while also cautioning gun control advocates not to exaggerate the weakness of the NRA, which has recently been beset for internal conflicts.

“The NRA has some major problems but the people who support the NRA still don’t want other people taking their guns away,” Feehery said.

Still, activists like Ambler believe the ground really has shifted. They view Trump’s calls for some kind of action not as any kind of Damascene conversation but rather as a bowing to changing political circumstances. 

“The fact that Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are entertaining our gun safety policy priorities like universal background checks is an indication of how badly we are beating them — and how much pressure we and Americans across the country are bringing to bear,” Ambler said. 

Trump is at least showing signs that he is serious about progress on the issue. In addition to his public statements, he said he had reached out to Democratic leaders in Congress to test the waters for some kind of action. 

There have also been reports that he is contemplating executive action if legislative progress is deemed impossible.

His defenders on the issue note that he enacted a ban on bump stocks — “not an insignificant thing,” said Caputo — after they were used by the shooter in the nation’s worst modern mass shooting, in Las Vegas in 2017.

But when it comes to more sweeping action, Democrats say they’ve heard it all before — and not only under Trump.

When former President Obama pressed for tighter gun controls after 20 children and six adults were killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., his efforts were unsuccessful. Obama branded Congress’s failure to act “shameful.”

Is Trump the person to change that record? Democrats are all but sure the answer is no.

“I have zero expectation he is going to follow through on the suggestion he is going to support stronger background checks,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley. “Once the NRA gets a hold of him, he will fold like a cheap, Chinese-made Trump tie.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.