By GABBY ORR 08/05/2019
President Donald Trump is exploring ways to use regulatory power and executive action to curb gun violence after a pair of deadly shootings over the weekend — a move driven by his aides’ belief that Congress is incapable of coalescing around consensus legislation in a heated 2020 election cycle.
White House officials on Monday said Trump and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr are “resolved” to take action after the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The administration is exploring solutions “that actually make an impact,” as opposed to “things that feel good,” one Trump aide said.
Trump has increasingly relied on his executive authority to address issues that have stained his administration, including the gun violence epidemic. Ten months after a teen gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last year, the Trump administration issued a rule — at the president’s request — to ban the sale and possession of devices known as bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic firearms to simulate automatic weapons. The National Rifle Association opposed the rule, arguing at the time that bans have rarely “worked on anything.”
Following a three-week government shutdown earlier this year, Trump similarly escaped criticism from his supporters after cutting a deal that excluded wall funding by declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress and spend billions on barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. And when the Supreme Court in June blocked his administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, Trump dropped the move and directed federal agencies via executive order to turn over data on the citizenship and noncitizenship status of all U.S. residents.
The specific moves under consideration this time aren’t yet clear, but Trump could draw from a long menu of potential options. Current 2020 candidates and past presidential hopefuls have proposed using executive action to enforce mandatory background checks for customers of gun sellers who deal beyond a certain annual threshold, increase fines for gun manufacturers who circumvent existing regulations, establish longer cooling-off periods for gun buyers and eliminating loopholes that, in some cases, allow individuals convicted of domestic abuse to purchase firearms. Of course, Trump could also reinstate an Obama-era regulation he undid in February 2017 that was intended to prevent mentally ill Americans from acquiring firearms.
In a nationally televised address Monday morning, the president reaffirmed his support for increasing the number of states with so-called red-flag laws, which would enable local officials to better identify unstable individuals who should be prohibited from owning or purchasing firearms. But Trump went further, calling for cultural changes that would end the “glorification of violence” in the U.S. and urging the Justice Department to prioritize enforcement of the death penalty against those convicted of hate crimes and mass murder.
“It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this, and it has to begin immediately,” Trump said in a 10-minute address omitting any reference to large-scale gun control efforts.
Trump has abandoned previous efforts to address gun violence in the wake of mass shootings, in addition to proposing solutions — such as arming school teachers — that a majority of congressional Democrats have already declared dead on arrival. It’s a pattern that some Republicans said they expect the president to follow once more, as he grapples with using executive authority without upsetting influential groups like the NRA or jeopardizing his support among gun rights advocates who helped elect him in 2016.
“Any action will likely be executive instead of legislative,” said one congressional aide, noting that Barr has long been a supporter of stricter gun laws.
Barr’s track record of statements about gun control caused some gun rights groups to oppose his nomination for attorney general, arguing at the time of his Senate confirmation hearing that he backed confiscation orders and gave ambiguous responses when asked whether he would support a nationwide ban on semi-automatic firearms.
“He would be a disaster for the Second Amendment,” Gun Owners of America, a pro-gun nonprofit, wrote weeks before Barr’s confirmation vote in February.
A second administration official said Trump has “tremendous respect” for Barr and is looking to him for counsel. It’s no coincidence, the official said, that Trump specifically mentioned Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or red-flag laws, in his remarks Monday. (Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee in January that advancing ERPOs was “the single most important” action Congress could take “in the gun control area.”)
On Monday, Trump also said his administration would consult with social media companies on potential tools they can develop to identify radicalized individuals who may be trying to plan mass shootings or who are gloating about criminal activities.
He did not, however, mention legislation that would strengthen the federal background check system for gun sales, despite citing background checks in a pair of tweets that preceded his televised address.
Some Trump allies said the current political climate leaves the president no choice but to assert unilateral authority to address gun violence. Democratic presidential hopefuls are unlikely to embrace any proposal that stops short of banning assault weapons out of fear of reprisal from their party’s progressive base, they argue, and most Republicans seeking reelection can’t afford to disturb the gun lobby.
But others said Republicans might be willing to strike a bipartisan compromise to inoculate themselves from claims that Trump’s rhetoric has contributed to the scourge of hate crimes committed by white supremacists. Law enforcement authorities believe the alleged gunman in El Paso targeted the Hispanic community after discovering an anti-immigrant manifesto he posted online shortly before the attack, which occurred three weeks after Trump urged four minority congresswomen to “go back” to their countries of origin (though only one of the women was born outside of the United States).
“I think there is willingness to work on this on the GOP side right now. Maybe [because of] the proximity of shootings or maybe folks just want to make clear the criticism of Trump doesn’t apply to them,” said the congressional aide.
Trump endorsed background checks for gun purchases prior to running for office and has repeatedly teased Republican lawmakers of being “afraid of the NRA.”
“On gun control, you are a pragmatic centrist, someone who knows there is a vast majority of Americans who are not to the extreme left or right on this issue. They just want the killings to stop,” one of the president’s favorite newspapers, The New York Post, wrote in a staff editorial Sunday evening.
Beyond banning bump stocks, though, the Trump administration has done little to address mass shootings or the rise of white nationalist violence. It wasn’t until Monday that Trump condemned “racism, bigotry and white supremacy” in a public manner.
A senior administration official declined to provide details about the actions Trump is weighing beyond the series of broad steps he outlined in his address. “The president has clearly been impacted by these recent tragedies. You can see that in the words he delivered this morning,” the official said.