Presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and some vulnerable GOP lawmakers signaled Wednesday that they are open to changing the nation’s gun laws, raising the possibility that the political tide may be shifting on an issue that has sharply divided Americans for years.
Mass shootings similar to the Orlando massacre that killed 49 people this week have quickly sparked a national outcry for congressional action in the past, usually followed by an intense pressure campaign by gun-rights supporters urging lawmakers to focus elsewhere.
But the debate launched this week could be different, thanks mostly to Trump.
On Wednesday, the presumptive Republican nominee said he would schedule a meeting soon with the National Rifle Association to discuss proposals to ban people on certain federal watch lists from buying firearms. Trump was renewing a position he first expressed last year after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. — but taking it to a new level by calling for a meeting with the NRA.
Trump’s announcement, made via Twitter, came as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), locked in a closely watched reelection battle, told Ohio reporters that he is ready to back a federal ban on weapons sales to anyone on a terrorist watch list if a compromise can be reached. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who has worked on bipartisan gun-control legislation in the past and is also facing a tough reelection, is in talks with a gun-control group led by former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to come up with such a measure, the group said.
The NRA responded to Trump by expressing general support for such proposals: “Our position is no guns for terrorists — period. Due process & right to self-defense for law-abiding Americans,” the group tweeted.
After the San Bernardino shooting, Trump told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he is “very strongly into the whole thing with Second Amendment. But if you can’t fly, and if you have got some really bad — I would certainly look at that very hard.”
“We have to be looking at a lot of different things,” Trump added in the interview. “But we can’t do anything to hurt the Second Amendment. People need their weapons to protect themselves. And you see that now more than ever before.”
Trump was backed up this week by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said that he is “open” to keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists, but not through existing proposals authored mostly by Democrats.
“Nobody wants terrorists to have firearms,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. He added that Republicans would not proceed before hearing from FBI Director James B. Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson during a closed-door classified briefing Wednesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Democrats on both sides of Congress were launching a full-court press aimed at forcing Republicans to act.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) launched a filibuster with help from Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The move came amid debate on a Justice Department spending bill that Democrats now hope to amend with gun-control proposals.
“I am prepared to stand on the Senate floor and talk about the need to prevent gun violence for as long as I can,” Murphy tweeted at the start of the filibuster.
House Democrats also huddled Wednesday, and leaders said they would push again to expand background checks on gun purchases and renew the lapsed assault-weapons ban, but would focus first on stopping terrorism suspects from buying firearms.
The federal terrorism watch list included some 800,000 people as of September 2014, the most recent data available. The Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, was on a list until 2014, when the FBI removed him on grounds he did not pose a credible threat. The lead shooter in the San Bernardino massacre also had been investigated by the FBI.
That revelation sparked a quick but fruitless attempt to revamp gun laws last year. Democrats introduced legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would have granted the attorney general power to prevent suspected terrorists — irrespective of whether their names appear on the government’s official lists — from buying weapons. Republicans responded with a bill by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) that would have given authorities three days after a suspected terrorist tried to purchase a gun to prove there was probable cause to reject the sale.
Both plans failed to pass. Democrats revived the Feinstein bill this week, and Republicans are likely to also reintroduce Cornyn’s bill, according to a senior Senate aide.
So far, not a single Republican has shifted to support Feinstein’s bill except Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), arguably the most vulnerable GOP lawmaker up for reelection this year, who voted for her bill last year. Most Republicans worry that people accidentally placed on the sprawling and secretive list struggle to be removed and could have their Second Amendment rights impeded during a lengthy appeals process.
Richard Feldman, a longtime gun rights advocate as head of the Independent Firearms Owners Association, noted that the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) labored for years to remove himself from the federal “no-fly” list and that other, lesser known Americans have battled even longer.
“Once in America, we used to be considered not guilty until proven guilty. Now we’re guilty until proven innocent. And it’s very hard to prove innocence,” Feldman said in an interview Wednesday.
Democrats aren’t likely to support Cornyn’s proposal because they believe that federal authorities could never clear a potential suspect within three days.
Given the existing divide, Toomey’s discussions with Bloomberg’s group, Everytown for Gun Safety, will be seen as a promising development for gun-control advocates and members of both parties eager for a compromise.
A spokeswoman said Wednesday that the group was “working with Toomey’s office on the “terror gap,” using a term that refers to the quirk in federal laws that allows people on the government’s terrorist watch lists to purchase firearms. But she declined to provide details on the talks.
The group said in a statement that Trump’s plans to meet with the NRA should result in “a meaningful proposal, not another red herring.”
Toomey told WPHT-AM radio Wednesday: “I think we ought to be doing whatever we can do to prevent terrorists from getting guns. The concern that I have, that I think most Pennsylvanians would share, is that if you are wrongly put on such a list, that you ought to have a way to get off the list.”
“There are definitely discussions about how we can find a way to achieve both,” Toomey added. “I think it is doable; I very much hope we’ll get there.”
In 2013, Toomey partnered with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in the wake of the 2012 Newtown, Conn., school shooting on a bill that would have required criminal and mental-health background checks at gun shows and for online sales. Their proposal earned 54 votes — six shy of the 60 needed to advance. Only four Republicans supported the bill.
Portman, who voted against Toomey’s bill in 2013, told reporters Tuesday: “I hope that the entire Senate votes to say that if you’re on the terrorist watch list — not just the no-fly list, which is a much more targeted list, but the terrorist watch list — you should not be able to buy a weapon.”
Other lawmakers also took steps Wednesday to revive the gun debate.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who was on the scene of the Orlando shooting just hours after it occurred, introduced a measure that would require the FBI to be alerted if a terrorism suspect buys a gun. The alert would not bar the suspect from purchasing the weapon but would notify the agency and allow it to take action.
Other Democratic senators introduced a plan to funnel $190 million to counterterrorism efforts and active-shooter training at the FBI. The bill would also assist the information-sharing efforts at the Bureau’s Terrorist Screening Center and help create 36 new positions to track threats. Democrats hope to attach the proposal to a spending bill that funds the Justice Department.
Manchin joined Murphy on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon to argue for action on the proposals.
“I can’t go home and explain to the people in West Virginia why we haven’t moved forward on this,” he said.
Feldman, the gun rights advocate, marveled at the moves by Toomey and Portman, saying that their interest in reforms “signifies a lot of weakness on the part of the Republicans that part of their ticket isn’t what it should be” — a reference to Trump.
“The problem is that when the emotionalism of this moment fades, as it will — it may be two weeks or two months, but it always does fade — the people who care about this issue are the gun owners of this country,” Feldman said. “They will vote for or against people on the basis of this issue.”
Mike DeBonis and Catherine Ho contributed to this report.