In an abrupt shift in message, Donald Trump indicated Wednesday that he might be taking on a Republican tenet: the party’s long-standing opposition to gun control.
Trump said he would talk to the NRA about not allowing “people on the terrorist watch list, or the no fly list, to buy guns.” In typical fashion for the presumptive Republican nominee, the announcement came via Twitter:
The NRA, for its part, says there’s no conflict:
In a statement, the NRA said it would be “happy to meet with Donald Trump.” But that:
“The NRA believes that terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period. Anyone on a terror watchlist who tries to buy a gun should be thoroughly investigated by the FBI and the sale delayed while the investigation is ongoing. If an investigation uncovers evidence of terrorist activity or involvement, the government should be allowed to immediately go to court, block the sale, and arrest the terrorist. At the same time, due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watchlist to be removed. That has been the position of Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) and a majority of the U.S. Senate. Sadly, President Obama and his allies would prefer to play politics with this issue.”
The controversy stems from the “Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act,” which was introduced after the Paris attacks. Republican Peter King from New York, for example, blamed the NRA for the lack of action on the bill.
“Anything which they feel restricts the use or the ability to retain a gun they’re opposed to,” King said, per the New York Daily News. “It’s sort of a knee-jerk reaction. The National Rifle Association is strongly opposed to it, and the fact is we have only a handful of Republican co-sponsors.”
The bill was first introduced in 2007 and subsequently in years that followed.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who was against a version of the bill in the Senate, said it was because “there are over 700,000 Americans on some watch list or another that would all be captured under this amendment the Democrats offered. And that’s the problem.”
PolitiFact rated Rubio’s statement “mostly false.” That’s because while there are 700,000 people on the list, only about 10,000 are Americans:
“The number of Americans on the list likely doesn’t exceed 10,000, said Martin Reardon, former chief of the FBI Terrorist Screening Center’s operations branch.
“Some innocent people have been wrongly included in the terrorist watch list or the no-fly list, which can affect their lives in ways such as having to go through extra airport security or being stopped from boarding a plane. But for an American to get on that list by accident is ‘harder than people think,’ added Reardon, who is now a vice president at the Soufan Group, a consulting firm.”
Trump’s seeming openness to potentially buck the NRA, even slightly, is yet another example of his willingness to veer off GOP orthodoxy. It also plays into the notion that he’s open to making deals with Democrats. It’s why some conservatives have questioned Trump’s conservatism — given his earlier views on a host of issues. In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, he wrote that he supported banning assault weapons, like the one used in Orlando, and extending waiting periods when purchasing firearms.
But it also shows that on yet another issue important to conservatives, as with abortion, Trump is not steeped in the issue and does not really understand the arguments. The NRA, for example, as noted above, would say it isn’t against denying guns to people on terrorist watch lists. It is even in favor of a bill that would do just that, the group argues. But because Trump doesn’t have a deep understanding of the issue, he gets himself into these positions that make him look like he’s splitting with important constituencies.
Despite appearing to open a crack in the door with the NRA — and his previous position in 2000 — Trump has come out firmly and publicly against an assault-weapons ban or further restrictions. Just look at his statements both immediately following the Orlando shooting and at an event Wednesday — after his tweet went out.
“Her [Hillary Clinton’s] plan is to disarm law-abiding Americans,” Trump contended, “abolishing the Second Amendment and leaving only the bad guys and terrorists with guns — no good. Not gonna happen, folks, not gonna happen.”
For the record, Clinton does not support abolishing the Second Amendment. She is in favor of tighter gun control measures, however.
In Atlanta Wednesday, Trump sounded equally hard-line on gun rights, alleging that if everyone in the Pulse nightclub had had a gun, there would have been a different result — something he said after the Paris attack as well (and is a standard NRA line).
“If some of those great people that were in that club that night had guns strapped to their waist or strapped to their ankle,” Trump said, “and if the bullets were going in the other direction, aimed at this guy, who was just open target practice, you would have had a situation folks, which would have been always horrible, but nothing like the carnage that we all as a people suffered this weekend.”
He added, “By the way, I’m going to save your Second Amendment.”
Forty-nine people were killed in Orlando, and even more injured, when a Muslim man — born in the U.S., who had declared allegiance to ISIS and apparently was mentally unstable and had frequented the gay club in the past — opened fire with an assault-style rifle. The Orlando shooting was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history and has prompted Democrats to re-up calls for gun control measures.
Clinton had also given a speech earlier in the day Monday in which she stressed the need to expand gun control laws. “If the FBI is watching you for suspected terrorist links, you shouldn’t be able to just go buy a gun with no questions asked,” Clinton said.
At a campaign event in Virginia Wednesday, Clinton reiterated that. “If you have suspected terrorist links,” she said, “you should not be able to buy a gun.”
Trump’s seeming shift might also reveal another Achilles’ heel of sorts for the candidate: his sensitivity to the polls. Despite his boasting of his strength in the polls Wednesday, the presumptive Republican nominee has seen a dip in recent weeks. According to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, Trump has dropped nearly 6 points in the last three weeks in head-to-head matchups with Clinton.
Americans are split on the issue of guns and have gotten more polarized during the Obama years. According to an August 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of Americans believe it is more important to control gun ownership while 47 percent believe is it more important to protect the rights of gun owners. That is a big swing from 2000 when two-thirds believed controlling gun ownership was most important.
In light of the Orlando shooting, some Republican lawmakers appeared open to a possible reconsideration of the bill that stalled last fall on trying to keep guns out of the hands of people on the terrorist watch list.
“We’re open. Nobody wants terrorists to have firearms,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday. “We’re open to serious suggestions from the experts as to what we might be able to do to be helpful.”
Senate Democrats are pushing again for legislation that would ban suspected terrorists from buying guns. The GOP, though, is pushing an alternative measure, noted above by the NRA, proposed by Cornyn. That bill would allow the delaying of gun sales to people on that terrorist watch list for up to 72 hours, to give law enforcement time to approve blocking the sale.
Similar previous Democratic and Republican measures were unable to overcome filibusters last year. Cornyn’s bill got 55 votes in December, but Democrats blocked it, because they see it as window dressing.
NPR Capitol Hill correspondent Ailsa Chang notes that after 72 hours, Cornyn’s bill requires the government to show probable cause that the person on the list is a known or suspected terrorist to permanently stop him or her from buying a gun.