WASHINGTON — Not two weeks ago, President Donald Trump wagged his finger at a Republican senator and scolded him for being “afraid of the NRA,” declaring that he would stand up to the powerful gun lobby and finally get results on quelling gun violence following last month’s Florida school shooting.
On Monday, President Trump struck a very different tone as he backpedaled from his earlier demands for sweeping reforms and bowed to Washington reality. The president, who recently advocated increasing the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon to 21, tweeted that he’s “watching court cases and rulings” on the issue, adding that there is “not much political support (to put it mildly).”
Over the weekend, the White House released a limited plan to combat school shootings that leaves the question of arming teachers to states and local communities and sends the age issue to a commission for review. Just two days earlier, President Trump had mocked commissions as something of a dead end while talking about the opioid epidemic. “We can’t just keep setting up blue-ribbon committees,” he said, adding that all they do is “talk, talk, talk.”
Seventeen people were killed in last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, prompting a national conversation about gun laws, fierce advocacy for stronger gun control from surviving students and, initially, a move from President Trump to buck his allies at the National Rifle Association.
In a televised meeting with lawmakers on Feb. 28, President Trump praised members of the gun lobby as “great patriots” but declared “that doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. It doesn’t make sense that I have to wait until I’m 21 to get a handgun, but I can get this weapon at 18.”
He then turned toward Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, and questioned why previous gun control legislation did not include that provision.
“You know why?” said President Trump, answering his own question. “Because you’re afraid of the NRA, right? Ha ha.”
His words rattled some Republicans in Congress and sparked hope among some gun control advocates that, unlike after so many previous mass shootings, meaningful regulations would be enacted. But President Trump appeared to foreshadow his change of heart with a tweet the very next night.
“Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!” the president wrote.
White House aides said Monday the president was focusing on achievable options, after facing significant opposition from lawmakers on a more comprehensive approach. President Trump will back two modest pieces of legislation, and the administration pledged to help states pay for firearms training for teachers.
Seemingly on the defensive after his about-face, President Trump tweeted Monday of the age limit that “States are making this decision. Things are moving rapidly on this, but not much political support (to put it mildly).”
The White House insisted that President Trump remained committed to more significant changes even if they are delayed.
“We can’t just write things down and make them law. We actually have to follow a process,” said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Right now the president’s primary focus is pushing through things we know that have broad bipartisan support.”
She placed blame for the inaction on Capitol Hill. But Trump has made little effort to marshal the support of congressional Republicans or use his popularity with NRA voters to provide cover for his party during a contentious vote.
Democrats and gun control advocates were quick to pounce on the president’s retreat from previous demands, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., tweeting that President Trump “couldn’t even summon the political courage to propose raising the age limit on firearm purchases – despite repeated promises to support such a step at a meeting with lawmakers.”
Television personality Geraldo Rivera — who had urged the president to consider tougher age limits during a dinner at President Trump’s Florida club — tweeted that President Trump had “blinked in face of ferocious opposition from #NRA.”
Still, President Trump argued that this was progress.
“Very strong improvement and strengthening of background checks will be fully backed by White House,” he tweeted. He added that an effort to bar bump stock devices was coming and that “Highly trained expert teachers will be allowed to conceal carry, subject to State Law. Armed guards OK, deterrent!”
Without strong advocacy from the White House, an ambitious gun package was unlikely to even get off the ground, given most Republicans’ opposition to any new restrictions. The two measures backed by President Trump — an effort to strengthen the federal background check system and an anti-school violence grant program — both enjoy bipartisan support, though some Republicans object and many Democrats say they are insufficient.
President Trump drew some Republican backing, with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who wrote the school safety bill, tweeting he was “grateful” for the White House backing and calling the measure “the best first step we can take” to make students safer.
No deadline was set for recommendations from President Trump’s planned commission, but officials expected them within a year.