President Donald Trump has been clear about one thing: he’s vowing to take action in the wake of the massacre at a Florida high school that left 17 dead last week. As for what’s going to change for America’s gun laws? Not even White House advisers can figure that out.
Trump sent mixed signals once again when he took the stage here at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday. In a sprawling, campaign-style speech to activists, the President vowed to make it tougher for those with mental illness to buy guns, suggested arming teachers and vowed to defend the Second Amendment from gun foes.
Such has been the pattern from the White House in recent days. A President who was elected with record backing from the National Rifle Association has sprayed a range of muddled ideas. He’s considered raising the age for buying weapons and directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to develop a plan to ban bump stocks, the gadgets that effectively upgrade weapons to automatic ones. Mental health is on the agenda, too, although there are serious worries among health professionals that the tone of the discussion is leaning towards stigmatization and not solutions.
With all these swirling ideas and so few specifics, frustrated White House advisers say they’ve had a difficult time sussing out what the President wants. As is so often the case, Trump seems most persuaded by the coverage on cable news. And at this moment, much of it includes stories from survivors.
If the plan is a mess at the White House, it’s a disaster in Congress. Lawmakers are due back from recess next week and there’s no clear vision for how to take up the gun issue. Clearly, the public is on board for action of some variety: in a new CBS News poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they supported stricter laws on gun sales, up eight percentage points from December, and the rise has come primarily from Republicans and independents. Yet it’s not clear there’s much enthusiasm in the GOP Congress to do anything substantial.
Republicans are facing an uphill climb to preserve their majority in the House, as well as a battle to maintain the Senate. Alienating pro-gun voters is a surefire way to suppress enthusiasm among a bloc that reliably votes for Republicans. The NRA still strikes fear in many officials’ stomachs.
On top of that, the two men who control their chambers are steadfast defenders of gun rights. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is an avid hunter. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky hoisted a gun over his head years ago at the same conference Trump addressed on Friday. Neither has much of an appetite for taking up gun restrictions, although they haven’t yet told their caucus to knock off talks on the issue. In calls with the President, they were open to hearing his ideas but did not pledge action.
Here at CPAC, the messages about guns have been scattershot. At a visit on Thursday, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre blamed the media for the school shootings and said Democrats sought to exploit the deaths for partisan gains. Minutes later, Vice President Mike Pence was on the stage to declare school safety was atop the agenda. (Hosting Governors at his residence the next day, Pence said “the time has come for us to work together to find new and renewed ways to put the safety and security of our children and our schools first.”) By the afternoon, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas cast the debate as one rooted in activists’ over-reach. “The Left’s answer is always, always, always to strip your Second Amendment rights,” Cruz said.
The next day, Trump was on stage praising the NRA. “There’s nobody that loves the Second Amendment more than I do. And there’s nobody that respects the NRA—they’re friends of mine, they backed us all, they’re great people, they’re patriots.” Back at the White House, the President said he spoke with Ryan and McConnell about banning bump stocks and beefing up background checks, two ideas that stray from party orthodoxy. “There’s a movement to get something done,” the President said.
Washington is familiar with such talk, of course, only to watch the push for new gun laws fall short. But this time the momentum doesn’t seem to be fading. The survivors are organized, vocal and demanding action. On top of that, the fact so many of the students hit the record buttons on their phones made it possible to see what it was like inside Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“We’re not going to let this happen again,” the President told reporters in the White House’s East Room. It’s a dangerous promise, since even the biggest efforts to stop another shooting can never guarantee success. Trump says he’s determined to take steps to fix one of America’s intractable problems. It’s just not clear how.