Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump seemed to embrace comprehensive gun control in the wake of the Florida high school shooting. How do we know this? Because he used those actual words, “comprehensive gun control,” in a meeting with Republicans and Democrats. He even mocked those who are “afraid” of the National Rifle Association and fiercely spoke of “taking” firearms first and then “going to court.” Yet, strangely, GOP leaders in Congress and NRA officials didn’t make much of a fuss. Instead, the NRA had a private meeting in the Oval Office and emerged content.
Now, the country finally knows why.
On Sunday, the White House released specifics of what Mr. Trump wants to do about guns, and Sen. Chuck Schumer’s description of the proposal as “tiny baby steps designed not to upset the NRA” is, if anything, a generous assessment. At the heart of the plan (aside from endorsing pending legislation that marginally improves the National Instant Criminal Background Check with incentives for reporting such crimes as domestic violence) is a commission. That’s right a commission. After all that fuss, Mr. Trump is willing to have a bunch of people sit around a table and talk about school safety.
And if anyone needed some indicator of how unlikely it is that this commission with its open-ended agenda and unclear deadlines will accomplish something meaningful, they need look no further than the person whom Mr. Trump has entrusted to lead it — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos whose first year on the cabinet has been marked mostly by revelations of how little she knows about education. The most recent was an appearance broadcast Sunday on the CBS news program “60 Minutes” during which she admitted she does not “intentionally” visit underperforming schools and was unaware if public schools in her home state of Michigan had been getting better.
Noticeably missing from the proposal was the one area where Mr. Trump had earlier seemed to completely part company with the NRA — his plan to raise the age at which young people could purchase assault weapons from 18 to 21. Ms. DeVos said it might come up during commission meetings as “everything is on the table.” That’s a far cry from President Trump’s February 22 tweet: “I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue — I hope.”
Turns out Congress wasn’t the changeable branch of government — despite the horrors of Parkland, Republican members of Congress haven’t been doing much (aside from wringing their hands over the state of mental health care or wagging their fingers at the FBI and local law enforcement for not somehow preventing the mass shooting). It’s the president whose mood is changeable. When it’s popular to be outraged by guns, he’s there, and when it’s time to obey your NRA masters, he’s right there, too. Clearly, the shelf life on presidential empathy over 17 deaths is slightly under a month.
What’s particularly disappointing about Mr. Trump’s retreat is that he was so uniquely positioned to do something serious about guns and school safety. The president has broad support among the gun-owning public. Had he stood up and decided that enough is enough and that some meaningful limits needed to be imposed, he likely could have convinced enough members of his own party to win congressional approval. After all, polls show it’s a popular point of view. Now, it’s clear that even the most foolish part of his proposal — arming teachers — isn’t really all that meaningful. Mostly, he’s calling on states to take action with some money tossed their way to help train school personnel.
Is anyone surprised by President Trump’s turnabout? Probably not. Like DACA, it’s part of his shtick to leap on popular issues, draw praise and then back off and retreat to his base. He now leaves the heavy lifting to GOP governors like Florida’s Rick Scott who made good on his promises and signed legislation raising the minimum age to purchase firearms to 21. Of course, the NRA immediately filed suit in federal court, calling that an affront to the Second Amendment. Gun sales advocates recognize a genuine crack in the armor when they see it. The president’s gun control advocacy was fake news all along.
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.