We may be inching towards some sort of public statement by President Trump on gun control, though when it will come is still anyone’s guess. Attorney General William Barr was at the Capitol yesterday speaking to several Republican lawmakers, and according to the Daily Caller‘s Amber Athey, background checks were a big topic of discussion.
The Daily Caller obtained a copy of an idea sheet circulating among Republican members, which indicates that the legislation in question would expand background checks to include all commercially advertised unlicensed sales.
“Consistent with the Manchin-Toomey draft legislation, a background-check requirement would be extended to all advertised commercial sales, including sales at gun shows,” the handout reads. “Background checks would be conducted either through a [Federal Firearm Licensee] or through a newly-created class of licensed transfer agents.”
You can read the document for yourself here, but the big takeaway is that the White House appears to be on board, at least as of Tuesday afternoon, with expanding background check requirements to all “commercially advertised unlicensed sales”, meaning at least some private sales or transfers of firearms. That is likely to be a “no go” for many gun owners, although the fact that the proposal says a violation of the law would result in a “civil penalty”, not a criminal charge, may slightly temper criticism of the plan.
Democrat leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have already said that anything less than universal background checks would be unacceptable, though I suspect they’d ultimately be on board with any expansion of background checks, especially knowing that they could portray the measure offered by Trump as a half-measure, and campaign on putting a Democrat in the White House to finish the job. That remains Trump’s biggest political issue at the moment; any gun control measure, no matter how small, that the president supports will be seen by 2nd Amendment supporters as caving to anti-gun activists, while the anti-gun activists will use any fig leaf offered by Trump as a cudgel to bash Republicans for not doing more.
Trump’s best bet politically might be to walk away and claim that Democrats have ruined any real chance for “meaningful” legislation by their continued insistence on more extreme gun control measures. In fact, the president has already taken a verbal shot at Beto O’Rourke for doing just that.
Dummy Beto made it much harder to make a deal. Convinced many that Dems just want to take your guns away. Will continue forward! https://t.co/87jvaYUkyn
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 18, 2019
The trouble with this strategy is that most GOP consultants, and many politicians, are convinced that they need to “do something” with gun control or else risk a huge backlash among suburban voters, particularly women. If Trump walks away without addressing guns, Democrats will seize on the opportunity and hammer the President and Republicans for caring more about the gun lobby than the lives of children. It won’t be true, but it doesn’t have to be a factually correct argument. It just has to be effective.
President Trump may have backed himself into a corner instead of triangulating here. Generally, in a political compromise both sides get something they can be happy about, in exchange for accepting something they wouldn’t otherwise support. What AG Barr was pushing on Capitol Hill yesterday, however, is something that leaves both sides generally unhappy. Gun owners see background checks expanded to some private sales, and gun control activists don’t get the full expansion of background check requirements that’s already passed the House. Nobody walks away from that feeling like a winner, though gun control advocates would come out better than 2nd Amendment supporters in that scenario.
If the White House expects the 2nd Amendment community to get on board with any expansion of background checks, it needs to have a better argument than “Hey, the Democrats would’ve done something way worse.” That may very well be true, but 2nd Amendment supporters didn’t show up at the polls in 2016 to vote for the least worst option, and if that’s how they see the 2020 election some may decide to sit out the campaign cycle entirely.