WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s public push for gun-control measures is causing consternation among conservatives and some of his advisers, who have privately raised concerns about the political and policy fallout of the approach, according to White House officials and people familiar with the discussions.
At least so far, Trump doesn’t appear to have been swayed by the concerns, and the president has indicated privately to aides that he wants to be seen taking action in response to back-to-back mass shootings earlier this month. Aides said he remains interested in pushing for legislative action to expand background checks and a so-called "red flag" measure preventing mentally unstable people from possessing guns.
While the president is vacationing at his golf course in New Jersey, White House officials began meeting this week with congressional staff in a bid to find areas of compromise.
“It’s very simple: There’s nobody that is more pro-Second Amendment than Donald Trump, ” Trump told reporters Tuesday before departing for a speech in Pennsylvania. “But I don’t want guns in the hands of a lunatic or a maniac, and I think if we do proper background checks, we can prevent that.”
Amid the increased discussion about gun control, some Trump advisers have urged the president not to throw his support behind any of the gun-control measures being discussed in Congress, including red-flag legislation introduced by top Trump ally Sen. Lindsay Graham (R., S.C.), which aims at temporarily blocking dangerous people from accessing firearms. Some advisers have expressed concern that such legislation could violate the Second Amendment and alienate conservative voters.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son who often speaks with his father about his views on gun laws, has raised concerns about both red-flag legislation and about tightening background checks, according to people familiar with the matter.
“Don Jr. is my gun expert,” Trump told supporters at a fundraiser Friday in Bridgehampton, N.Y., according to one of the people familiar with the matter. “He knows more about guns than anyone I know.”
Campaign advisers asked White House officials for at least a week to gauge how various options — including background checks and taking no action — would fare among the president’s base of supporters before the administration decides on an official course of action, a person close to the White House said.
The White House has also heard from prominent conservatives around the country who have urged the president not to take any major action on guns.
“When you’re president because of a grand total of less than 78,000 votes spread out over three states, you don’t have to alienate too much of your base on an issue they care about to lose,” conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace said.
Others close to the president who have raised alarms about Trump’s focus on gun legislation said privately they were holding out hope that there would be less momentum for taking action once Congress returns from its August recess.
The White House declined to comment on those concerns. Democrats are urging the president to act quickly, saying that broadening background checks — which the Democratic-controlled House passed two bills to do earlier this year — and other measures to restrict access to firearms are necessary to prevent mass shootings.
The White House for the moment appears unlikely to issue a broad executive order on gun laws, instead focusing on legislation the president could support on the Hill.
Punting the bulk of the action to Congress could allow the president to appear engaged without necessarily taking the blame if legislation fails. Trump would have to throw his full weight behind a bill for Republican lawmakers, most of whom have historically opposed tightening gun laws, to support such a measure.
White House staff on Tuesday continued meeting with aides to lawmakers in both parties who are seen as central to the congressional gun debate. The aim of the meetings, according to a White House official, is to determine which policies have enough bipartisan support to win approval in both chambers.
White House officials are planning to meet with staff for Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) and Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), as well as Rep. Doug Collins (R., Ga.) and Graham, the official said.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, has also been calling lawmakers since last week to discuss gun legislation, according to people familiar with the matter.
The White House response to the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, which left more than 30 people dead, has been different than the administration’s response to the one in Parkland, Fla., last year, which is giving some lawmakers who have worked on gun-related legislation optimism that it could move forward.
After the shooting in Parkland, the president had a televised meeting with lawmakers but didn’t engage in the policy discussions. In the past week, the White House staff has engaged with congressional aides and is reviewing legislation expanding background checks for gun purchases.
On Tuesday, the president again expressed optimism that Congress can pass legislation on background checks, saying he believes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) “wants to do something.”
McConnell has long declined to take up legislation tightening gun laws, but last week suggested there was support for red-flag laws and said he was “anxious to get an outcome.” He has so far rebuffed calls to convene the Senate before recess ends, and his aides have stressed that he hasn’t yet endorsed any specific proposals.
Graham, in an interview Tuesday afternoon, said the president wants a bipartisan compromise on the Hill on red-flag legislation and more comprehensive background checks, and he also wants to focus on improving mental health treatment. Under consideration is an executive action that would bolster funding at the Department of Health and Human Services for treatment of mental illness, Graham said.
The president isn’t interested in banning assault weapons — a step called for by many Democrats in Congress and the 2020 presidential field — and wants to narrow the scope of background checks to commercial transactions, not private transfers, Graham said.
“The president is determined to get something done that doesn’t infringe on people’s Second Amendment rights to lawfully own a gun, but to deal with the mental health aspect of this, keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people and making sure background checks are robust,” he said.
In addition to background checks, mental health and red-flag laws, White House officials said their initial internal conversations about a policy response have focused on addressing cultural forces they believe contribute to shootings, finding ways to use the internet to identify possible attackers and mandating the death penalty for perpetrators of mass shootings.
While much of the administration’s focus is on a legislative response, senior aides from the Domestic Policy Council, National Security Council, Justice Department and White House Counsel’s Office also have been discussing what narrower moves the president could make unilaterally, a White House official said. Among the actions under discussion: refocusing on the recommendations in a report released last year by a federal commission on gun safety formed in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting.