WASHINGTON — Putting fellow Republicans in the hot seat, President Donald Trump called for speedy and substantial changes to the nation’s gun laws on Wednesday, criticizing lawmakers in a White House meeting for being too fearful of the National Rifle Association to take action.
In a freewheeling, televised session that stretched for an hour, Trump rejected both his party’s incremental approach and its legislative strategy that has stalled action in Congress. Giving hope to Democrats, he said he favored a “comprehensive” approach to addressing violence like the shooting at Florida school earlier this month, although he offer no specific details.
Instead, Trump appeared to support expanded background checks. He endorsed increased school security and mental health resources, and he reaffirmed his support for raising the age to 21 for purchasing some firearms. Trump also mentioned arming teachers, and said his administration, not Congress, would ban bump-stock devices that enable guns to fire like automatic weapons.
“We can’t wait and play games and nothing gets done,” Trump said as he opened the session with 17 House and Senate lawmakers. “We want to stop the problems.”
The president has previously backed ideas popular with Democrats, only to back away when faced with opposition from his conservative base and his GOP allies in Congress. It was not clear whether he would continue to push for swift and significant changes to gun laws, when confronted with the inevitable resistance from his party.
Still, the televised discussion allowed Trump to play the role of potential dealmaker, a favorite for the president. Democratic lawmakers made a point of appealing to the president to use his political power to persuade his party to take action.
“It is going to have to be you,” Sen. Chris Murphy told Trump.
Trump’s call for stronger background checks, which are popular among Americans, has been resisted by Republicans in Congress and the NRA. Republicans have instead been leaning toward modest legislation designed to improve the background system already in place. Trump made clear he was looking for more and accused lawmakers of being “petrified” of the gun lobby.
“Hey, I’m the biggest fan of the Second Amendment,” Trump said, adding that he told NRA officials it’s time to act. “We have to stop this nonsense.”
The White House meeting came amid fresh public debate over gun laws, fueled by student survivors of the massacre at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who have been meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The school reopened Wednesday for the first time since a Valentine’s Day assault killed 17.
Gun legislation has lost momentum in Congress as Republican leaders showed little interest in pursuing stricter gun control laws.
Democrats said they were concerned Trump’s interest may fade quickly. After the meeting, Murphy, D-Connecticut, told reporters: “I’m worried that this was the beginning and the end of the president’s advocacy on this issue. The White House has to put some meat on the bones. The White House has to send a proposal to Congress.”
The White House is expected to reveal more on the president’s plans for school safety this week, though it has not announced any plans. That announcement will likely include goals for background checks and bump stocks, though whether age restrictions will be specifically addressed remains unclear, according to an administration official who sought anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Trump rejected the way Republican leaders in Congress have framed the debate, saying the House-backed bill linking a background check measure with a bill to expand gun rights by allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines was not the right approach. The concealed carry measure is the gun lobby’s top legislative priority. But “you’ll never get it passed,” Trump told lawmakers, reminding them that Democratic senators, including some in the room, strongly oppose it.
Instead, he suggested Republicans should focus on the background check bill, then load it up with other gun control and safety measures.
Ever the marketer, Trump suggested that the leading bill adjusting the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — now known as “Fix NICS” — could use a new name. “Maybe you change the title, all right? The U.S. Background Check Bill, or whatever,” Trump said.
The hour-long meeting with lawmakers was reminiscent of one in January on immigration, when he told lawmakers to come up with a good bill and he would take the “heat” from critics.
That effort, however, ended in failure in Congress amid Trump’s shifting views and priorities in the debate.
Among those at the White House Wednesday were Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, who are pushing their bill — which failed twice in the Senate after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — to broaden background checks to include pre-purchase reviews at online and gun show sales.
Trump asked Toomey if his plan to expand background checks included raising the minimum age for young people to buy an assault weapon. Toomey told the president it did not.
“You know why,” Trump scoffed. “Because you’re afraid of the NRA.”
The meeting came after one major retailer, Dick’s Sporting Goods, announced it was halting sales of assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines at all of its stores and banning the sale of all guns to anyone under 21.
The discussion was billed as a session focused on “school and community safety,” and two of those attending, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. John Rutherford, R-Florida, have proposed new federal grant funding to stem school violence. The bill would offer money for law enforcement and school staff training, campus infrastructure upgrades and mental health resources.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas, Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor and Zeke Miller contributed to this story.