President Trump's openness to extensive gun background checks draws warning from NRA

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President Donald Trump has repeatedly told lawmakers and aides in private conversations that he is open to endorsing extensive background checks in the wake of two mass shootings, prompting a warning from the National Rifle Association and concerns among White House aides, according to lawmakers and administration officials.

Trump, speaking to reporters Wednesday before visiting Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, where weekend shootings left 31 dead, said there “was great appetite for background checks” amid an outcry over government inaction in the face of repeated mass shootings.

Trump’s previous declarations of support for tougher gun controls, including after the deadly Parkland, Florida, shooting in February 2018, have foundered without a sustained push from the president and support from the NRA or Republican lawmakers. Even Trump’s advisers question how far he will go on any effort.

NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre spoke with Trump on Tuesday after the president expressed support for a background check bill and told him it would not be popular among Trump’s supporters, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal talks. LaPierre also argued against the bill’s merits, the officials said.

The NRA, which opposes the legislation sponsored by Sens. Patrick Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, declined to comment.

Advisers to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said he would not bring any gun-control legislation to the floor without widespread Republican support. Trump has waffled, current and past White House officials say, between wanting to do more and growing concerned that doing so could prompt a revolt from his political base. Even some supporters of the Manchin-Toomey bill, which would expand background checks to nearly all firearm sales, say it is unlikely to pass.

“I don’t think the president or his Republican allies are going to become out of nowhere advocates of aggressive gun control,” said Matt Schlapp, who leads the American Conservative Union and is a close ally to Trump.

Trump has focused on guns extensively since the shootings, calling lawmakers and surveying aides about what he should do — outreach that began Sunday evening. White House officials say there have been a series of meetings on a response, convened by acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, including a session Tuesday morning.

The president has discussed with aides the idea of a Rose Garden bill-signing ceremony for gun-control legislation, a notion that seems premature to many in the West Wing.

Trump also asked lawyers about what he could enact through an executive order, officials said.

“He seems determined to do something and believes there is space to get something done this time around,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who said he had spoken to Trump “four or five times” since the shooting. “The president has a pretty common-sense point of view. He’s never been a sports or gun enthusiast. But he is more determined than ever to do something on his watch.”

Manchin said Trump called him at 6:30 a.m. Monday and that the two spoke again on Tuesday, when Trump said he wanted legislation before September, when the Senate is scheduled to return.

Trump did not express explicit support for the Manchin-Toomey bill but asked a range of questions. Most of the recent mass shootings were carried out with guns purchased legally.

“He was inquisitive, wanting to know why it hadn’t happened. He wanted to know all about it,” Manchin said. “I told him we couldn’t get enough Republicans to help us.”

Manchin said he told Trump that he would need to back any gun-control legislation or it would fail again. Those comments were mirrored by almost a dozen GOP and White House aides.

“If you don’t stand up and say, ‘This is a piece of legislation I support,’ we’re not going to get enough cover to have Republicans stand tall. They won’t be able to do it,” Manchin said.

On Tuesday, Trump outlined some NRA concerns in a second call with Manchin. “We talked about that,” Manchin said. “I told him, we don’t expect the NRA to be supportive. Mr. President, in all honesty, when you did the bump stocks, they weren’t for you. They were against that, too. You didn’t take any hit on that.”

In March, the administration administratively banned bump stocks, the devices used to make semiautomatic rifles fire rapidly like machine guns.

A White House official said Trump had asked some advisers and lawmakers this week about whether the NRA had enduring clout amid an internal leadership battle and allegations of improper spending, as well as what his supporters would think of the bill.

The Washington Post reported this week that LaPierre sought to have the NRA buy him a $6 million mansion in a gated Dallas-area golf club after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students and staff members were killed.

Toomey said he has spoken with the president at least three times since the weekend shootings. He declined to elaborate on the conversations, although he stressed that Trump hasn’t specifically endorsed the bill. Their conversations have been more general, he said, but Toomey noted that they had been “encouraging” and “very recent.”

“I will just tell you generally the president is open-minded about this,” Toomey said.

Some measures — such as a ban on assault weapons — have been ruled out, White House officials and legislative aides say. Recent polls indicate a majority of Americans support some form of a ban on assault rifles, though there is a large partisan divide and fewer than half of Republicans support such measures. A July NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll found 57 percent of the public supported a ban on “the sale of semiautomatic assault guns, such as the AK-47 or the AR-15.” Fewer than 3 in 10 Republicans supported the proposal, rising to a slight majority of independents and more than 8 in 10 Democrats.

“There’s no political space for that,” Graham said. “So I don’t think he’s going to go down that road.”

However, about 9 in 10 Americans support requiring background checks for all gun purchases, including more than 8 in 10 Republicans, Democrats and independents, according to polling.

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