Republicans start to sour on gun control laws after Trump's reversal

By Burgess Everett

Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson is casting major doubt on the prospects of significant gun regulations passing this fall, the latest sign that the effort to pass new firearm laws is starting to falter.

The Wisconsin Republican said that a background checks measure based on the bill written by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and a national "red flag" bill are both unlikely to pass. He was open to GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham’s bill that would establish a red flag grant program, but said the Senate would need to “attach to those grants very strict guidelines in terms of due process.”

“I really don’t see the dynamic having really changed there much,” Johnson said of an effort to strengthen background checks during gun sales, which generally polls at around 90 percent. “I don’t anticipate we’re going to pass a federal red flag law.

“There are a lot of downsides to passing more legislation that doesn’t do anything positive,” Johnson added.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly emphasized there are already strong background checks on the books, an apparent reversal from his drive to push his party on tightening background checks. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi assailed Trump for the turnabout, with Schumer calling it “heartbreaking.” They are pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up the House-passed universal background checks bill, which lacks GOP support in the Senate.

But Trump's leadership of the GOP is what's most important in the Republican Senate. And he is splashing the latest gun safety push with cold water as the Senate prepares to come back into session in early September.

On Tuesday the president reiterated that the existing background check system is muscular, telling reporters that "we have very, very strong background checks right now." Asked if he supports the House-passed legislation, he replied: “I’m not going to get into that.”

The president said he's having "meaningful" talks with Democrats and wasn't ruling anything out but made clear that his conservative political base is skeptical of new regulations — so he is too.

"A lot of the people that put me where I am, are strong believers in the Second Amendment, and I am also. And we have to be very careful about that. You know, they call it the slippery slope. All of a sudden everything gets taken away," Trump told reporters. "We're not going to let that happen."

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) spoke to Trump last week and said the president made a commitment to work in a bipartisan way on a background checks bill that can pass the Senate. Murphy said until he hears from Trump himself, he's 'not willing to concede that history repeated itself and that he has walked away from the commitment he made."

But Johnson said Trump’s most recent comments are just reflecting the reality of GOP voters and the current political dynamics.

“If he’s talking to the same people I’d be talking to, he’d probably be a little bit more careful in terms of saying: ‘This is for sure what’s going to happen,’” Johnson said of background checks.

Still, the president hasn’t ruled out action and a number of Republicans are holding out hope that multiple mass shootings in a short span of time has changed the political dynamic.

“We need to do something to show that we’re doing something rather than just kicking it down the road,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who has spoken to Toomey and believes McConnell is open to putting something on the floor if it can become law.

While a number of Republicans like Braun have expressed some openness to new gun regulations, enhanced background checks will struggle to attract 60 votes in the Senate, where it will need at least 13 GOP supporters. Red flag legislation also divides Republicans, with some already saying they have yet to see anything they would support.

"I'm going to look at everything we looked at — everything," Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told reporters last week. "I'm a Second Amendment supporter. I'm a member of the NRA. So I'm not ... taking away people's guns.”

Trump could change that dynamic, of course, with a weakened National Rifle Association and his iron grip over the party. But historically, he’s shown little appetite to ultimately go against conservatives on guns.

That’s why some Republicans are starting to bet on minimal action, if that.

“All I can really tell you is what I hear in Wisconsin: The debate really hasn’t changed at all,” Johnson told reporters on Tuesday. “I realize the clamor and I realize the polling, but I don’t think that really assesses peoples’ knowledge of what we’re really talking about here.”