Murphy, Esty put the case for expanded background checks to Trump

March 1, 2018

WASHINGTON — Sen. Chris Murphy took the case for expanded universal background checks directly to President Donald Trump at a White House summit on gun legislation, telling the president that his support was the only way to overcome the gun lobby’s “veto power.”

“We have a unique opportunity to get comprehensive background checks,” Murphy, D-Conn., said at a roundtable meeting with 16 other senators and House members, including Rep. Elizabeth Esty. “Mr. President, it’s going to have to be you that brings Republicans to the table on this, because right now the gun lobby would stop it in its tracks.”

“I like that responsibility, Chris, I really do,” Trump responded. “I think it’s time that a president stepped up.”

Murphy also pressed Trump on easy availability of guns, arguing that the U.S. has the same rates of mental illness as other developed nations where schools are much safer.

“What’s different is that we have the loosest, most lax gun laws in the (world),” Murphy said. Trump demurred, bringing the subject back to background checks and inveighing on lawmakers to address mental illness.

Esty recalled how she got a call in 2012 while in training to be a House member informing her of the mass-shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“So I haven’t had a day when I don’t think about it,” Esty said. “That’s been our nightmare for our people we represent. It’s now (Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat who represents the area where the Florida high school mass shooting occurred) and it’s now your nightmare.”

Trump interrupted Esty to ask why nothing had been done in Washington after previous mass shootings. At another point he blamed former President Obama, even though Obama joined Murphy, Esty and others in pushing for expanded background checks and “no fly, no buy” legislation to prohibit gun purchases by those on the terrorism air-travel watch list.

Trump, for his part, traversed the ideological map on guns and gun laws. He praised two background proposals backed by Murphy and Esty and said he can buck the National Rifle Association, which has successfully blocked numerous new gun measures.

He called leaders of the NRA “patriots” and called himself “a big fan.”

But he acknowledged the organization’s hold over Congress, suggesting to the assembled lawmakers that some of them are “petrified” by the organization’s influence.

The NRA has “power over you people,” Trump said. “But they have less power with me.”

He expressed approval for raising the age for purchasing semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, the same as handguns. The NRA opposes any such measure.

However, Trump was in alignment with the NRA on its call for arming teachers, veterans and other qualified volunteers to carry weapons in schools, and the view that “Gun Free Zones” at schools are an open invitation for mass shooters.

He was cool to the NRA’s No. 1 legislative priority at the moment: Concealed carry reciprocity. The House in December approved concealed-carry reciprocity along with Fix NICS, Murphy’s measure that would beef-up the existing FBI background-check system.

Concealed-carry reciprocity would make it legal for gun owners in easy-gun-law states like Texas and Mississippi to carry weapons over state lines under the laws of their home states, rather than the laws in states such as Connecticut that are considerably tougher.

The concealed-carry bill is a non-starter with Democrats, something that Trump noted in the meeting.

“If you add concealed carry” to a background checks measure, “you’ll never get it passed,” Trump said.

Trump favored packaging Fix NICS with a far stronger background check bill that would close the so-called “gun-show loophole” and require checks for all but a small number of private firearms sales.

Under current law, only federally licensed firearms dealers have to process background checks. Sales between individuals not directly in the firearms business (at gun shows and elsewhere) are not required to do such checks.

Such support would set Trump apart from most Republicans on Capitol Hill who almost uniformly voted against a universal-checks bill in 2013. The measure, sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., won 54 votes mostly from Democrats, six shy of the 60 needed to move forward.

After the meeting, both Esty and Murphy expressed guarded optimism that it represented a significant step forward in the years-long effort to pass gun legislation against staunch Republican opposition.

“If the President comes out forcefully for comprehensive background checks and puts pressure on Republicans, they’ll pass it,” Murphy told reporters at the Capitol. “The President ran based upon his ability to close a deal. And he told everybody today that he wants to do comprehensive background checks and if he and Republicans don’t deliver, I think there’s only a few people to blame.”

Esty called the meeting “somewhat surprising.”

“If the president is willing to use his image as a tough guy, I think we’re witnessing a tipping point,” Esty said. “Words are easy, but action is hard to do in Congress. The president understands there is a moment. And we can feel it.”

It was the second time in two months that Trump conducted a major White House meeting on live TV.