President Donald Trump took on the National Rifle Association (NRA) — and politicians who support it — in a free-wheeling, bipartisan, televised discussion on gun laws with members of Congress at the White House Wednesday.
Trump has held several such meetings since the beginning of the year, beginning with a meeting on immigration in January. The events are virtually unprecedented in showing Americans a civil and open exchange of views on contentious issues among leaders — and, occasionally, ordinary citizens — on both sides of the political divide.
This meeting was different, however, in that the president was not just listening, but driving policy in a particular direction.
And that direction — perhaps to the dismay of some of Trump’s core supporters — is toward gun control.
At one point, Trump dismissed a suggestion by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) — who was wounded last summer in a mass shooting targeting Republicans — to allow national reciprocity for concealed carry permits.
Trump told Scalise bluntly: “I think that maybe that bill will someday pass but it should pass as a separate bill… You’ll never get this passed. If you add concealed carry to this you’ll never get it passed. Let it be a separate bill.”
Trump defended the idea of raising the minimum age to purchase a rifle — at least, the AR-15 used in the Parkland, Florida shooting earlier this month — to 21, pointing out that handguns already had such an age requirement, but that the shooter had still been able to buy the rifle he used.
Trump acknowledged that the NRA was opposed to the proposal. “I’m a fan of the NRA. There’s no bigger fan. I’m a big fan of the NRA … These are great people, these are great patriots,” he said. “They love our country. But that doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.”
Then, in an exchange that captured the attention of the mainstream media, Trump told Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) that they were “afraid of the NRA” after they told him that their bipartisan bill to expand background checks had not included a provision to raise the minimum age to purchase a rifle.
Toomey responded by defending the view that adults over 18 should be able to own rifles: “My reservation about it, frankly, is that the vast majority of 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds in Pennsylvania who have a rifle or a shotgun — they’re not a threat to anyone. They’re law-abiding citizens. They have that because they want to use it for hunting or target shooting. And to deny them their Second Amendment right is not going to make anyone safer.”
The president acknowledged that argument, but went on to argue that Republicans should add Democrat ideas into one compromise bill. His emphasis was on expanding and improving background checks, but he was clearly open to more ambitious proposals — or at least wanted to be seen open to other ideas. He dismissed the idea of “gun-free zones,” describing them as dangerous — but he also wanted to push gun control legislation forward.
How much of Trump’s performance was theatre is anyone’s guess. When asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) whether he would actually sign a bill to raise the minimum age for purchasing a rifle, Trump dodged carefully: “I’ll tell you what: I’m going to give it a lot of consideration, and I’m the one bringing it up, and a lot of people don’t even want to bring it up, because they’re afraid to bring it up.”
It is possible that Trump simply wanted to be seen as fighting the NRA, while at the same time bringing out the NRA’s arguments — such as Toomey’s response — in the mouths of other people. That way, Trump could cast himself as a leader on the issue, without committing to legal changes that would alienate a core part of his base.
But conservatives will, no doubt, worry about his apparent concessions to Democrats — and how far they could go.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named to Forward’s 50 “most influential” Jews in 2017. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.