Trump won't back universal background checks as gun talks continue

By Sara Cook and Paula Reid

/ CBS News

Do red flag laws help prevent gun violence?

The White House is not expected to put forth its gun policy proposal for at least another week, and a universal background checks bill passed by the House earlier this year is firmly off the table, according to a source familiar with ongoing discussions on gun legislation proposals.

Over the weekend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged President Trump to support H.R. 8, a bill that would require background checks on all gun sales with limited exceptions. But the source said the president does not see universal background checks as a feasible solution for reducing gun violence, and a veto threat from when the bill passed in February still stands.

Among other initiatives the president will not support: a gun registry, gun confiscation, a mandatory buyback policy, a ban on high capacity magazines, taxes or regulatory impediments to the purchase of ammunition and a ban on any class of weapon, particularly an assault weapons ban. The source called all of the above "way out of bounds" for the president.

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There is, however, still hope for a modest expansion of the background check system. The president remains open to a background checks expansion proposal along the lines of the so-called Manchin-Toomey bill, the source said. The president has been in regular contact with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut for several weeks on a bill that would require background checks on commercial gun sales, including at gun shows and online.

In discussions with White House officials, the three senators have expressed openness to making "appropriate adjustments" to the legislation, the source said, adding that the president, his team and Attorney General William Barr continue to gauge reaction from members to come up with a passable solution on background checks.

"There is not a specific plan. We are kicking around ideas, and I'm getting their perspectives," Barr told reporters on Capitol Hill, where he was meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday. "We are just, as I say, exploring different options and ideas [to] put me in a better position to advise the president on these issues."

The Manchin-Toomey bill failed to garner enough support when originally put forward in 2013 and again in 2015. Among the four Republican senators who initially voted for the bill, only two — Toomey and Susan Collins of Maine — remain in office. But the sense inside the White House is that changing political dynamics over the past six years could prompt support from some GOP members on background checks. Those changes go beyond an accelerated pace of high-profile mass shootings — the source cited an uptick in activity at the state and local level in response to mass shootings and a Department of Justice that is "seen as a partner to Republicans on the Hill."

While such a measure may garner more support from Republicans this time around, background checks that apply only to commercial sales are seen by many Democrats as falling far short of what's needed to stem gun violence. Pelosi and Schumer warned Mr. Trump in a Sunday phone call that any proposal he endorses that does not include universal background checks "will not get the job done."

The president is also considering several other options, including expediting the death penalty for mass shooters, mental health reform, allowing access to juvenile records in background checks, cracking down on straw purchases and designating domestic terrorism as a federal crime.

The White House has also floated the idea of developing a cellphone application connected to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), so that private sellers could conduct instant background checks. But there are significant concerns related to privacy, the Second Amendment and access to NICS data and gun ownership records. The Washington Post first reported the app was under consideration.

Another option currently under discussion on Capitol Hill is the adoption of so-called "red flag" laws, which allow law enforcement to obtain "extreme risk protection orders" to seize firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut are working on bipartisan legislation that would create a federal grant program to encourage states to adopt red flag laws. Although Mr. Trump voiced his support for red flag laws last month, internal discussions at the White House surrounding this proposal have grown more tepid amid constitutional concerns.

The White House will likely not issue a formal announcement or roll out this week of gun proposals Mr. Trump would support, according to the source. The president is currently wrapping up a West Coast swing through New Mexico and California, returning to Washington late Wednesday night. He will welcome Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for a state visit on Friday, and travels to Texas and Ohio this weekend before spending early next week in New York City for the U.N. General Assembly.

There was some speculation that he could announce his gun proposals on Thursday, but a source confirms such an announcement is highly unlikely until after he returns from New York.

There is also no formal briefing planned for GOP leaders this week on proposals the president would support, though the White House will continue to have discussions with individual members and small groups. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Monday that Congress is "in a holding pattern" until lawmakers receive guidance from the president as to what proposals he would be willing to sign into law.

Asked about the National Rifle Association's involvement in the process, the source would not get into specifics on how much input the group has given, but said the White House has been in touch with "a lot of people on the outside."

First published on September 18, 2019 / 7:13 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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