Washington – President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he wanted Sen. Chris Murphy to join three Senate colleagues – John Cornyn, R-Texas; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., in drafting a “comprehensive” gun bill that is “very powerful” on expansion of the FBI background check system for gun buyers.
“We are determined to turn grief into action,” Trump said at a White House gathering with lawmakers to discuss ways to combat gun violence.
Trump has been considering changes for gun laws, pressured by a wave of student activism after 17 people were shot to death at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.
On Wednesday, he invited Murphy, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, and 15 other lawmakers to a lively discussion at the White House on how to prevent gun violence.
Besides endorsing legislation that would expand FBI background checks to include all sales by individuals at gun shows and over the internet, the president said he’d also back raising the minimum purchase age for rifles to 21.
Trump said he wanted a “beautiful” and “comprehensive” bill that would win strong support in Congress.
Citing many “red flags” about the troubling behavior of Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, Trump also said, “We have to do something to take guns immediately from the mentally ill.”
“Everyone was seeing that this guy was sick and nothing happened,” the president said. Trump also said “take the guns first, go through due process second.”
Murphy repeatedly warned Trump against underestimating the gun lobby’s clout.
He told Trump that a compromise background check bill, sponsored by Manchin and Toomey in 2013 after the Sandy Hook shootings turned the nation’s attention to gun violence, failed to pass because of the National Rifle Association’s influence in Congress.
“The reason that nothing’s gotten done here is because the gun lobby has had a veto power over any legislation that comes before Congress,” Murphy said.
But Murphy said bills could pass the Senate with Trump’s backing. “Mr. President, it’s going to have to be you that brings Republicans to the table on this because right now, the gun lobby will stop it in its tracks,” Murphy said.
After the event, Murphy, who had met with White House staff Tuesday evening on the gun issue, said the president’s support is meaningless unless he does something to change GOP resistance in Congress.
Murphy also said he was surprised by the president’s willingness to back so many changes to federal gun laws “forcefully,” and by the president’s “tone.”
“He was very dismissive of the gun lobby,” Murphy said.
Trump seemed willing to defy the NRA. In one exchange, he chastised Toomey for failing to add a provision in his universal background checks bill that would raise the minimum purchase age for rifles.
“You know why? Because you’re afraid of the NRA,” Trump said.
Trump also pushed back against House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., for insisting a bill sponsored by Murphy and Cornyn aimed at bolstering reporting to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, (NICS) be married to an NRA priority – a controversial measure that would require states to recognize concealed-carry permits from another state.
“If you add concealed-carry to this, you’ll never get it passed,” Trump told Scalise.
Murphy said Trump also “outflanked” Democrats who are pushing for states to do what Connecticut does, allow state courts to take guns away from those who are a danger to themselves or others “by suggesting we take guns without a warrant.”
“I don’t think I can support that,” Murphy said.
Trump also said he planned to use his executive authority to ban “bump stocks,” devices that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire multiple rounds with one pull of the trigger. Bump stocks were believed to have been used in the Las Vegas shooting last fall that left 59 people dead.
Gun control advocates say using executive authority to outlaw bump stocks could result in lawsuits that would keep the ban from being enforced. They prefer Trump back legislation to ban the devices, but the president was firm he wanted to “write out” bump stocks.
Trump stopped short of endorsing an assault weapons ban, but told the issue’s chief champion, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to work with those drafting the new gun bill on the issue.
The president also continued his campaign to “harden” schools against an attack, allowing “people with certified training” to carry weapons in the nation’s schools. But it’s unclear whether Trump wants that provision in the bill he’s directed Murphy and others to draft.
At one point during the meeting, he said arming school personnel may work better in some states like Texas, which already does so, than in others.
“I don’t think states all have to be the same,” Trump said.
Esty told Trump the nation “is at a tipping point” when it comes to gun violence.
“I do know why,” Esty said. “I think it’s the students.”
Trump conducted a similar listening session with victims of gun violence last week that included students of Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who demanded action.
Murphy, Esty, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and other members of the Connecticut congressional delegation have sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills that would tighten federal gun restrictions after the Newtown massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six educators in December of 2014.
But the gun lobby has blocked any change.
The Toomey-Manchin background bill failed several months after the Sandy Hook shooting on a 54-46 vote – it needed 60 to pass – with several parents of the slain children watching from the gallery in disbelief.
But a number of the senators who voted “no” on that bill have said since the recent shooting in Florida that they might be willing to reconsider their positions.
Still, Trump’s support is key to winning support for any gun bill, especially in the U.S. House. “You can get this done, Mr. President,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat who represents Parkland in the U.S. House.