House conservatives say they are baffled by President Trump’s recent support for a string of Democratic-backed gun control ideas, with some lawmakers even questioning how committed he is to protecting the Second Amendment.
“I don’t know how he came unmoored,” said libertarian Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), one of the staunchest defenders of gun rights in Congress.
“President Trump can do more damage than President Obama did to the Second Amendment with the bully pulpit, because Republicans instinctively rejected anything Obama put forward.”
House Republicans expressed a mix of shock, frustration and disappointment that Trump endorsed a Democratic “wish list” of gun control proposals during a meeting on Wednesday at the White House. The ideas he spoke favorably of included imposing new age limits on gun purchases and taking guns away from dangerous people.
Republicans in both chambers of Congress, and particularly the House, made clear they have little interest in adopting Trump’s “comprehensive” approach.
“On a lot of these issues, where we believe that there is an infringement on Second Amendment liberties, we’re going to be opposed to those,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a band of roughly 30 conservative hard-liners.
Trump has been eager to take action on gun control following a deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school last month, with student survivors emerging as powerful voices in the politically charged debate.
The president has since hosted a series of listening sessions on gun violence, including the televised meeting at the White House with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday.
During the freewheeling, hourlong session, Trump delighted Democrats and infuriated Republicans when he voiced support for expanded background checks and urged lawmakers to dramatically expand the scope of their legislative response, which GOP leaders had tried to keep as narrow as possible.
“I was surprised that he basically just incorporated the whole wish list of gun control into his proposed omnibus gun control bill,” Massie said.
In one stunning moment, Trump also advocated for confiscating guns from individuals deemed dangerous without following due process.
“I like taking the guns early, like in this crazy man’s case that just took place in Florida … to go to court would have taken a long time,” Trump said. “Take the guns first, go through due process second.”
Conservatives said they were having a hard time wrapping their heads around that statement.
Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), who wasn’t watching the meeting live, said his phone was “blowing up” with concerned text messages from constituents asking whether Trump’s comments were real and urging Davidson to “do something” in response.
“When talking with colleagues, that’s the piece that’s getting the most traction,” Davidson said.
Massie, who heads the congressional Second Amendment caucus, called it Trump’s “most disappointing statement.”
“He broadened the concern beyond the Second Amendment: they can take any piece of your property without due process, if due process is no longer a value he believes in,” said Massie, who let out both long sighs and incredulous laughs during a phone interview with The Hill.
That wasn’t the only idea Trump mentioned Wednesday that is anathema to the GOP and National Rifle Association (NRA).
The president reiterated his support for raising the age requirement for purchasing assault-style rifles from 18 to 21, an idea fiercely opposed by the NRA and conservatives.
In fact, Massie on Thursday said he would seek to scale back age restrictions for guns, not raise new ones, by introducing legislation that would lower the age for buying a handgun from 21 to 18.
Under current law, someone must be 18 years old to buy a rifle and 21 years old to buy a handgun.
“It’s unconstitutional to completely extinguish the Second Amendment for a category of adults,” Massie said.
Trump also waded into the hot-button debate over the federal criminal background check system for gun purchases.
Not only did Trump express support for a far more expansive bill from Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to expand background checks for firearms bought at gun shows and over the internet, he also forcefully rejected the idea of attaching a more narrow background check bill to controversial legislation backed by the NRA that would allow people to carry concealed weapons across state lines.
“All that legislation has problems,” Jordan said, referring to the background check bills.
Conservatives have major due process concerns with the most modest background check bill, called the Fix NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) Act, because they worry it will allow the government to easily take away a person’s Second Amendment rights.
They only agreed to vote for Fix NICS after House GOP leaders attached the measure to the concealed carry reciprocity bill and promised not to decouple the two issues.
Jordan said he has reminded leadership of their commitment, while Davidson dismissed concerns that GOP leaders would break their promise just because of Trump’s comments.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said earlier this week he would wait to see what the Senate does on Fix NICS before deciding whether to put it on the floor as a stand-alone bill.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday announced that his chamber would be moving to banking legislation next week, rather than a background check bill.
The Senate’s move makes it a real possibility that Republicans will ignore their president’s wishes for a gun vote — and lawmakers made clear that it’s their prerogative to do so.
“There’s a reason we have separation of powers,” Davidson said. “I’m not particularly concerned that our House leadership would renege on what they had committed to do.”
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