The president made the remarks during an extraordinary, hour-long White House meeting on Wednesday with congressional Republicans and Democrats who are under pressure to address gun violence in the aftermath of the massacre at a Florida high school earlier this month.
During the meeting, Trump called for a “beautiful” comprehensive bill that would expand background checks on gun purchases, remove guns from the hands of the mentally ill, bolster security on school campuses and restrict young people from purchasing certain weapons.
Within hours of the meeting’s conclusion, conservatives and some Republicans turned on Trump, who was elected with broad support from the gun lobby and claimed on Wednesday that the National Rifle Association had “no bigger fan”. Breitbart, the far-right news organization that fanned the flames of Trump’s rise, denounced the president as a “gun grabber” who “cedes” to Democrats.
Senator Ben Sasse, a conservative Republican who was not in the meeting, lacerated the president for his tendency to shift positions on a whim.
“Strong leaders do not automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them. We have the second amendment and due process of law for a reason,” Sasse said. “We’re not ditching any constitutional protections simply because the last person the president talked to today doesn’t like them.”
Trump, who ran the meeting like a boardroom CEO, pointing at lawmakers for updates on their legislation, called on Congress to be “very strong” on background checks, repeatedly offering his support for a plan that failed to pass the Senate in April 2013, months after a gunman killed 20 young children and six staff members at Sandy Hook elementary school.
“You have to be very, very powerful on background checks. Don’t be shy,” Trump said during the televised session. He added: “I’d rather have you come down on the strong side than the weak side. The weak side is easier to do.”
Two senators, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey, both of whom attended the meeting, plan to reintroduce their bill that would have imposed universal background checks for commercial gun purchases, including at gun shows and over the internet.
Eighty-four percent of Americans favor such a law – although critics note that the proposed legislation still does not cover private sales between private people who are not licensed dealers.
Trump urged the lawmakers to combine the measure with a separate modest bipartisan proposal to incentivize public agencies to improve reporting to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Checks System. Democrats have said the plan is woefully inadequate, and does not address the demands of student survivors of the Parkland shooting, many of whom have called for a complete ban on assault weapons for civilian use.
In a surprising exchange with Toomey, Trump asked if his measure included a provision to raise the age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21. Toomey replied that it did not, and Trump shot back: “You know why? Because you’re afraid of the NRA.”
Trump rejected a demand by conservatives in the House that this so-called Fix Nics bill be paired with controversial concealed carry legislation, which is favoured by the NRA and would loosen restrictions by enabling gun owners with concealed-carry permits in their home states to take their firearms across state lines.
“If you add concealed carry to this, you’ll never get it passed,” Trump told Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, who was seriously wounded last summer by a gunman targeting a congressional baseball practice. “Let it be a separate thing.”
Trump repeatedly berated his Republican colleagues, accusing them of being afraid of the NRA, and appeared to take pleasure in stating his willingness to take on the gun lobby.
“Some of you people are petrified of the NRA. You can’t be petrified,” he said. Trump gloated that he pushed the NRA’s leaders to back some reforms to gun regulations over lunch last weekend.
Trump alarmed staunch supporters of the second amendment when he suggested that in some cases law enforcement should be allowed to “take the guns early,” even before seeking approval from a court.
“Take the guns first, go through due process second,” Trump said.