For a moment, it seemed as though what was usually assumed in Washington could no longer be taken for granted.
President Trump was promising “very meaningful background checks” in the wake of two gruesome mass shootings. He insisted that congressional Republicans would “lead the charge” for new gun legislation, which would have been a tectonic shift in the politics of guns that only sustained pressure from a figure such as Trump could possibly have produced.
Then the hope faded. Speaking to reporters on Sunday, the president cooled on background checks, insisted that he is “very concerned with the Second Amendment” and repeated shopworn Republican talking points.
“It’s the people that pull the trigger. It’s not the gun that pulls the trigger,” he said. “They have bipartisan committees working on background checks and various other things. And we’ll see. I don’t want people to forget that this is a mental-health problem. I don’t want them to forget that because it is. It’s a mental-health problem.”
Reporters asked him to clarify his stance on support for universal background checks.
“I’m not saying anything,” he said. “I’m saying Congress is going to be reporting back to me with ideas. And they’ll come in from Democrats and Republicans. And I’ll look at it very strongly. But just remember, we already have a lot of background checks, OK?”
If the president is expecting a Republican Senate to send him a gun-control bill without his strong, public backing, he will be waiting a long time. This is the same party that blocked minimal gun-safety reforms after a shooter murdered 26 children and staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School — and after every other gun-related atrocity since.
More Republicans across the country are embracing sensible gun laws in the wake of massacres in Ohio and Texas. Wisconsin's senior senator should, too. He's in an ideal position to make a difference.
Other nations have mental-health problems, evil people intent on inflicting harm and violent video games. What distinguishes the United States is that American society is saturated with a wide variety of easily accessible guns — and the result is that mass shootings have become almost routine. The country has background checks, but they don’t apply to many firearms sales and transfers at gun shows and other places.
As for the background checks that are conducted, federal authorities only have so much time to complete them before gun sales go through, meaning that dangerous people get weapons merely because the clock runs out.
Practically no one thinks this situation is reasonable. Some 90 percent of Americans favor universal background checks. Strong majorities, including among those key to GOP victory, favor other gun reforms, too. A package of essential policy changes would include a “red flag” law that allows judges to confiscate weapons from those at risk of committing imminent harm, an extension of the time federal authorities have to conduct background checks, and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Yet even these bare-minimum reforms seem, once again, out of reach — thanks in part to a president who apparently lacks the courage to champion measures he recognizes as necessary.