Trump Weighs New Stance on Guns as Pressure Mounts After Shootings

WASHINGTON — In the wake of two mass shootings, the divisive politics of gun control appeared to be in flux on Thursday as President Trump explored whether to back expanded background checks on gun purchasers and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, signaled that he would at least be open to considering the idea.

It is not clear that either the president or Mr. McConnell will embrace such legislation, which both of them have opposed in the past and which would have to overcome opposition from the National Rifle Association and other powerful conservative constituencies.

But their willingness to weigh its political appeal and feasibility — or to be seen doing so — suggested that Republicans are feeling pressure to take some substantive action after mass shootings over the weekend in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, that killed 31 people. Mr. McConnell said that a measure expanding background checks to all gun purchasers would be “front and center” when the Senate comes back into session next month.

“There is a lot of support for that,” he said in an interview with a Kentucky radio host, adding that the discussion would also encompass so-called red flag legislation that would make it easier to seize firearms from people deemed dangerous. Such legislation had already been gathering support from Republicans.

While stopping short of backing a background check measure or committing to bring it to a vote, Mr. McConnell said, “I think the urgency of this is not lost on any of us, because we’ve seen too many of these horrendous acts.”

If Mr. Trump were to back such legislation and Mr. McConnell proved willing to bring it up in the Senate, it would signal a fundamental change in the gun control debate. After previous mass shootings, similar discussion about Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans dropping their opposition to expanded background checks went nowhere.

Mr. McConnell’s comments came as Mr. Trump has been reaching out to a wide array of allies and opponents — including, on Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader — to gauge the possibilities of pushing through a background check bill. The president spoke with Mr. McConnell on Thursday morning and has held a series of discussions with Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, who has been pushing a bipartisan background check bill.

He has directed White House aides to determine what he might be able to do through executive action if Congress does not act. And he has reached out to Wayne LaPierre, the embattled head of the N.R.A., seeking to test whether the organization’s formidable clout in blocking gun control legislation is ebbing.

“I certainly think it’s fair to say the president is very interested; the president would like to do something in the background check space,” Mr. Toomey said, though he added that Mr. Trump has not committed to supporting his bill, which fell to a filibuster in 2013.

In a statement, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer said they had told the president that Mr. McConnell should take up a background check bill passed by the House this year.

“The president gave us his assurances that he would review the bipartisan House-passed legislation and understood our interest in moving as quickly as possible to help save lives,” they said.

Should Mr. Trump throw his weight behind a background check bill — or even an executive order, which would surely face legal challenges — it would immediately change the gun control calculus for skittish Republicans, giving at least some cover to support the concept. And it would be a huge turnabout for the president; in February, he threatened to veto the House bill.

In private conversations, Mr. Trump has offered different ideas for what action on gun safety might look like.

With some advisers, he has said he thinks he can get something done through executive action. With others, he has said he prefers legislation. With still others, he has said he would like a political concession in exchange for doing so. And he has insisted that he would be able to convince his most ardent supporters who favor gun rights that the moment for a change has arrived.

Mr. McConnell told the radio host, Terry Meiners of WHAS in Louisville, that he is determined to see bipartisan legislation pass, adding, “what I want to see here is an outcome, not a bunch of partisan back and forth.” He also said he expected discussion of an assault weapons ban, which is favored by Democrats but highly unlikely to pass in a Republican-controlled Senate.

He said he had spoken to Mr. Trump, and the president was “very much open to this discussion.”

Still, Democrats caution that they have been down this road with Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell before, and it is not clear how sustained Mr. Trump’s attention to the issue will be or how much political capital he will spend to follow through.

After the massacre of 58 people at a Las Vegas concert in 2017 and the killing of 17 students in Parkland, Fla., the next year, Mr. Trump made good on a pledge to impose a ban on bump stocks, the attachments that enable semiautomatic rifles to fire in sustained, rapid bursts. But he also expressed support for taking guns away from dangerous or mentally ill people — even without court orders — only to back away after gun-rights advocates objected.

Mr. Trump has also mused in the past about more aggressive moves like tightening loopholes in the existing background check law but then failed to take action — including last year, after the Parkland shooting. And Mr. Trump earlier had reversed an Obama-era executive action that used Social Security records to help flag people with disqualifying mental health issues.

Mr. McConnell’s commitment is also unclear. He said he did not intend to bring the Senate back into session from its August recess, as Ms. Pelosi asked again on Thursday that he do.

In a statement issued just after Mr. McConnell spoke, Mr. LaPierre said the N.R.A. “opposes any legislation that unfairly infringes upon the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

Mr. LaPierre did not specifically say whether that included red flag laws and background checks. But the group has opposed such measures in the past, and Mr. LaPierre said that “many proposals are nothing more than ‘soundbite solutions’ — which fail to address the root of the problem, confront criminal behavior, or make our communities safer.”

Behind the scenes, Mr. Trump has made at least some appeals to Mr. LaPierre. On Tuesday, the president called the N.R.A. leader to describe his thinking, according to two people familiar with the call. The call was first reported by The Washington Post.

Mr. Trump talked up the idea of a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden and insisted that he believed it would be successful, according to those briefed on the call. Mr. LaPierre made clear that his members — many of whom back Mr. Trump — would not favor such a move.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a close ally of the president, said Mr. Trump was “open-minded” about pursuing background check legislation, but he sounded more optimistic about the possibility of a red flag law.

Part of the challenge for lawmakers seeking action is that the White House is divided — as is often the case. The hard-liners and Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who is close to pro-gun activists, are uneasy about angering the president’s heavily white and rural base by pursuing gun control measures ahead of 2020.

But others, particularly Mr. Trump’s eldest daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, are aggressively lobbying the president to take action, according to Republican officials who have been in touch with her.

A close adviser to Mr. McConnell, Scott Jennings, said on Thursday that he spoke with the leader this week and encouraged him to pursue a background check bill.

“I think we’ve reached a tipping point,” said Mr. Jennings, who is based in Kentucky and has advised Mr. McConnell for years. “The polling clearly supports that notion, and as long as the president is going to be for something, I think there will be momentum for it within the party.”

Regardless, senators of both parties are deeply skeptical that Mr. McConnell will bring any sort of gun control measure to the floor unless the president demands it.

“There’s no way Republicans are voting for a background check bill unless Trump comes out in favor of it for more than a couple of hours,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, recalling that Mr. Trump also voiced support for strengthened background checks following the massacre in Parkland, Fla. “I’ve been to this rodeo before.”

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii was even blunter. “Unless Donald Trump says here’s the model legislation I want and here’s the White House position, then I think everyone should assume it’s” not true, said Mr. Schatz, using a far more colorful word.

On Thursday, more than 200 mayors, including the mayors of Dayton and El Paso, signed a letter demanding that Mr. McConnell bring the Senate back from its August recess to consider the House-passed legislation.

“There’s no sense that the gun that the shooter used in Dayton — it was completely legal, he broke no laws to get it here,” said Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton. “And so here we sit, nine dead and 27 injured in Dayton. All we’re asking is for Congress to do its job.”

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