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Trump Softens Support For New Background Check Laws After Call With NRA Head


The door looks open to some kind of legislation on guns. At least President Trump and Democrats both say they're interested. But what isn't clear is whether they can get from that openness to actual passage of a bill. NPR's Tim Mak covers Congress, and he's here with more.

Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: So, you know, almost immediately after the two mass shootings in El Paso and in Dayton earlier this month, we heard President Trump talk about his openness to more background checks. But where does he seem to stand on all of that today?

MAK: So Trump says that he's still on board. He told reporters at the White House today that, quote, "we can get this done." But no one really is quite sure exactly what this means. Neither the president nor his advisers have talked in much detail about where they stand, and we're still waiting to see what Democrats will accept. I mean, there are a number of proposals now working their way through Congress. The House Judiciary Committee is going to come back from their recess early in order to take in and address some gun-related legislation, but we're not sure whether the president will support it, whether the Republican-controlled Senate will support it, at the end of the day, whether or not there's going to be a bill that goes to the president's desk for his signature.

CHANG: Right. I mean, the president has been sending some mixed signals these past couple weeks. There's been a lot of reporting that he's been on the phone with the head of the National Rifle Association. What do we know about those conversations?

MAK: So the CEO of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre - he talked with the president for about a half an hour on Tuesday. Trump referenced that conversation today. He said that they talked about, quote-unquote, "concepts"...

CHANG: Concepts.

MAK: ...But that he welcomed the support of the NRA. Of course, he also said he wanted to do something. But I want you to listen to one thing the president said today and tell me whether you think it sounds familiar.


PRES DONALD TRUMP: The gun doesn't pull the trigger, a person does. And we have great mental illness.

CHANG: I mean, that sounds exactly like guns don't kill people, people kill people, which is exactly one of the old lines used by the NRA.

MAK: Exactly. I mean, Trump is framing the issue in the way that the NRA often does. For Trump and a lot of gun rights advocates, this should be a debate on how to treat mental illness in the United States not how to restrict gun purchases. But that's not going to cut it with Democrats. Former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, said today that he not only wants universal background checks for gun buyers. He wants to return to the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired many years ago. And he also said that he wants, quote, "mandatory buybacks," in which the government would go out and buy guns already in private hands. That would be a huge lift politically.

CHANG: Yeah.

MAK: And it underscores how far apart the two sides are right now.

CHANG: Well, that said, how much influence does the NRA have at this point? Because, you know, there's been a lot of polling that shows overwhelming support for expanding background checks. And there has been some turmoil inside the NRA lately. So how powerful can the organization continue to be, you think?

MAK: Well, they're still powerful enough to get the president on the phone at short notice to talk to him...

CHANG: Right.

MAK: ...About their premier issue. But there are a number of investigations currently underway into the group's finances. There have been these scandals about how they've spent memberships money. There have been investigations launched by the New York attorney general and the D.C. attorney general and multiple congressional probes into their finances. So this week has brought us to a really interesting crossroads between the power of the NRA and the turmoil that's happening. I mean, the same day that the president spoke to Wayne LaPierre on the phone, two board members of the NRA resigned. So that gives us a kind of taste...

CHANG: Yeah, a snapshot.

MAK: ...As to where we are - that they are still powerful, but they're still dealing with all this internal tumult.

CHANG: That's NPR's Tim Mak.

Thanks, Tim.

MAK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLANK AND JONES' "ISLAND TRIP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.