Conservatives floored by Trump’s gun control lovefest
Minutes into Donald Trump’s renegade embrace of the left’s wish list for gun control, Republican Rep. Warren Davidson’s phone lines blew up.
“What is Trump doing?” texted one angry constituent from his conservative southwest Ohio district, according to Davidson. “You’ve got to stop this,” demanded another. “That can’t be real,” Davidson recalled thinking as his supporters — all Trump enthusiasts — unloaded on the president.
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Then he reviewed the full video clip. “I was like, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’” he said in an interview. “It was a bit shocking.”
Trump threw decades of party orthodoxy on gun rights out the window on Wednesday, as he mused aloud about enacting a comprehensive gun control package and said due process should come after guns are taken away from dangerous people.
The response on Thursday among congressional Republicans was a mix of disbelief, denial and outrage. The GOP has its rifts on hot-button issues like immigration and health care. But its devotion to expansive gun rights has been close to absolute. As Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) put it, “Everyone says it’s the NRA” that explains the GOP’s devotion to the cause. “No. It’s your constituents.”
“Most of the ideas … will not improve safety of our schools and protect our kids,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), a staunch gun rights advocate.
“When it comes down to it, his administration will have a problem,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) said of Trump’s call to increase the age for some firearm purchases or to seize weapons in some cases without a court order.
But Trump is still president. So they were more prone to rationalize or explain away his apparent openness to an assault weapons ban and more background checks — among other items on gun control advocates’ policy menu — than to go after him directly.
Maybe Trump didn’t mean what he said, some of them mused, or perhaps had been misunderstood. Others held out that he would come to his senses and quickly end his flirtation with Democrats.
“That was yesterday. This is today,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a state that overwhelmingly supported Trump.
“Anytime you have somebody wanting to take away life, liberty or property without due process, that is a concern,” added Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). “I would like to figure out what he meant.”
“I don’t know how much thought he put into what he actually was saying, in terms of the details of it,” offered Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.)
Republicans have adopted a strategy of not necessarily taking what Trump says in showman mode at face value. Meeting with Democrats and Republicans at the White House in January, he talked up liberal immigration proposals only to backpedal later, when conservatives howled.
It doesn’t do much good, Republicans reason, to attack the leader of their party over a position he might not hold for more than a couple of days.
And practically speaking, it will be nearly impossible for Congress to pass much more than a bill to improve background checks, given the hardened GOP opposition. Even a modest background-checks bill is being held up by Lee and like-minded conservatives, who say it would trample the due process rights of veterans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has balked at a guns debate in the immediate aftermath of the massacre of 17 people in Florida, a delay that could sap the energy of gun control activists.