President Trump backed away Tuesday from his own call to strengthen background check requirements for firearm purchases that he made in the wake of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 people dead.
Speaking to reporters gathered at the White House, Trump told reporters that “we have very, very strong background checks right now.”
The president said he is more interested in addressing mental health than addressing gun control and that his administration is “looking at mental institutions.”
“I’ve said it a hundred times: It’s not the gun that pulls the trigger, it is the person that pulls the trigger,” Trump continued.
Research has turned up little evidence of a correlation between mental health and gun violence. The National Center for Health Statistics, for instance, found that fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.
Trump’s latest comments on background checks represent a marked shift from just two weeks ago, when he first tweeted about the massacres in Texas and Ohio.
"We cannot let those killed in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, die in vain,” Trump tweeted on Aug. 5. “Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying this legislation with desperately needed immigration reform. We must have something good, if not GREAT, come out of these two tragic events!”
Two days later, before traveling to console victims of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Trump again signaled his support for expanding background check legislation. “I’m looking to do background checks," Trump told reporters. "I think background checks are important.”
Before departing for a vacation on Aug. 9, Trump again touted the need for background checks on firearm purchases. “I think meaningful background checks are a real positive,” Trump said on the South Lawn. “I don’t just say ‘background checks.’ Because we passed background checks a number of times, but … everybody knew they weren’t that strong.”
So what changed? First, the National Rifle Association released a statement blaming mental illness for the slayings that signaled it would not support stricter background checks.
Then, according to the New York Times, Trump spoke with NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre and other gun rights advocates during the president’s stay at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J. By Monday, Trump had “started to move on” from pursuing gun control reforms, a White House official told the Daily Beast.
On Tuesday, the Atlantic reported that Trump called LaPierre earlier in the day to assure him background checks were “off the table.”
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday. “President Trump, feeling public pressure in the immediate aftermath of a horrible shooting, talks about doing something meaningful to address gun violence, but inevitably, he backtracks in response to pressure from the NRA.”
In the aftermath of the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead, Trump also came out in support of strengthening background checks on firearm purchases. “We’re going to be very strong on background checks. We’re going to be doing very strong background checks,” Trump said the week following the shooting.
Days later, after meeting privately with NRA officials, Trump dropped his call for new background check regulations. Earlier this year, the president threatened to veto legislation passed in the House that would have tightened background checks.
On Tuesday, Trump refused to say whether he would support either of two Democratic-led bills seeking to bolster background checks, but he portrayed Democrats as “weak” when it comes to the Second Amendment.
“A lot of the people that put me where I am are strong believers in the Second Amendment,” Trump said in the Oval Office.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who spoke with Trump last week, said Tuesday that the president expressed support for background checks legislation in their conversation.
“Until I hear directly from him, I’m not willing to concede that history repeated itself and that he has walked away from the commitment he made,” Murphy said in a statement. “But it’s time for Republicans and President Trump to decide whose side they’re on. Are they going to stand with the 90% of Americans who want universal background checks, or are they going to once again kowtow to the desires of the gun lobby?”
The House measures were strongly opposed by the NRA, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring them up for a vote.
After the massacres in Texas and Ohio, Trump said he had spoken with McConnell and insisted he and the Kentucky Republican were on the same page regarding background checks.
“Mitch wants to do something,” Trump said. “He wants to do something. He wants to do it, I think, very strongly. He wants to do background checks, and I do too, and I think a lot of Republicans do.”
The last significant gun control measure to pass Congress was 1994’s assault-weapons ban. It expired a decade later and lawmakers did not renew it.
After the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Trump’s Justice Department issued an executive order essentially banning bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic weapons to fire like automatics. Former President Barack Obama issued an executive order that would have restricted firearms sales to people receiving Social Security benefits for mental disability, but Trump, in his first full month in office, signed legislation rolling back that policy.
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