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Will Universal Background Checks for Gun Buyers Ever Become Law?

September 9, 2019, 3:25 PM UTC

As several Democrats are calling for the GOP-controlled Senate to support the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which would require federal background checks on all gun sales, including private transactions, the National Rifle Association has remained pretty clear on its position against them—for several reasons.

The NRA says background checks for all gun buyers would do little to deter violence, when many criminals acquire firearms illegally, either by stealing them, buying them on the black market, or getting them from others.

“So-called universal background checks will never be universal because criminals do not comply with the law,” an NRA spokesperson, who did not wish to be named in this article, told Fortune on Thursday. “Instead of looking for effective solutions that will deal with the root cause of violent crime and save lives, anti-gun politicians would rather score political points and push ineffective legislation that doesn’t stop criminals from committing crimes.”

The NRA has said that universal background checks would punish law-abiding gun owners who might want to sell their firearms to similar owners who use them for sport, competition and, of course, self-defense.

Current federal law requires background checks for guns sold through licensed dealers. However, it allows individuals who are not dealers to sell firearms to other individuals privately without background checks.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told a Louisville, Ky., radio station last month that he’s discussed with Trump background checks and “red flag” laws that would allow authorities to seize firearms from people considered a threat to themselves or others.

“Those are two items that for sure will be front and center as we see what we can come together on and pass,” McConnell said.

But Delaware Senator Chris Coons thinks Trump could seize the opportunity to ask Congress to pass what Coons is calling a more comprehensive background check bill.

“(Trump) could do this if he chose to stand up to the NRA, it would be an important moment, and it would help secure our public safety,” Coons, a Democrat, told CNN in August. “But, I’m afraid of what he’s done the last three times there was a major mass casualty shooting incident where initially he comes out making very strong statements about his courage and his willingness to stand up and make us safer as a country, and within a matter of days reverses course and slinks away in the face of a real challenge from the NRA.”

The latest episode: the NRA said two weeks ago that Trump told longtime NRA chief Wayne LaPierre that universal background checks for potential gun purchasers are off the table.

“I spoke to the President today. We discussed the best ways to prevent these types of tragedies,” LaPierre wrote on the NRA’s Twitter account, adding Trump was a strong supporter of the Second Amendment.

While Trump confirmed to reporters the next day that he discussed background checks with LaPierre, he disputed published reports that he told LaPierre that background checks were indeed off the table, as he continues to seek other gun measures.

Trump said, “We already have very, very strong background checks,” adding that the issue also involves mental health.

“I have an appetite for background checks,” Trump said at the White House last Wednesday before he headed to an event in Louisville. “We’re going to be doing background checks. … We’re going to be filling in some of the loopholes.

“We can close up the gaps, do things that are very good and frankly gun owners want to have done. We have to remember the gun doesn’t pull the trigger. A person does. And we have great mental illness,” the president said.

Trump also reiterated a common NRA talking point about warning of a “slippery slope” in making changes to America’s much-debated gun laws.

“I’m concerned that no matter what we agreed to when we get there, I’m concerned that Democrats will say, ‘Oh, well, we now want this.’ It’s a slippery slope. That’s what actually your gun owners and a lot of other people,” he said.

President Donald Trump has also reiterated a common NRA talking point about warning of a “slippery slope” in making changes to America’s much-debated gun laws:

“I’m concerned that no matter what we agreed to when we get there, I’m concerned that Democrats will say, ‘Oh, well, we now want this.’ It’s a slippery slope.”

When pressed further if he is echoing the NRA’s position, Trump said, “No. It’s a Trump talking point … we have a Second Amendment and our Second Amendment will remain strong.”

This is a contradiction to what Trump said just days after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. The president told reporters at the White House that “there’s a great appetite, and I mean a very strong appetite for background checks. I think we can bring up background checks like we never had before.”

This leads Ryan to believe that the NRA still has some leverage on Capitol Hill, and in the White House. “Yeah, of course, look at Trump. He talks one way and gets on the phone with them and talks another way,” Ryan said.

Andrew Patrick, a media director for the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV), said he was a bit optimistic about Trump seeking gun reform after this month’s mass shootings, and defying the NRA, which has recently undergone leadership and financial issues, because he thinks the president “hates to be associated with a loser.”

But, Patrick, whose group is “100% in favor of universal background checks,” said his views about Trump changed after that call with LaPierre.

Undoubtedly, the embattled NRA still has the cache to be influential, said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who focuses on the Second Amendment and gun control. 

The NRA was an early supporter of Trump’s historic 2016 run for the presidency, pumping some $30 million into his campaign. The president “counted on the pro-gun vote and the NRA delivered. He owes a lot to them, and he’s not willing to fight them,” Winkler said.

“We’re definitely seeing a reinvigorated gun movement in America,” Winkler adds. “Gun politics will play a very prominent role in the 2020 election.”

Ohio Congressman and presidential candidate Tim Ryan agrees. Moments after his stump speech to Democrats in San Francisco last month, the Democratic presidential candidate said Republicans in the Senate will likely continue to take their cues from Trump and the NRA for that matter.

“We have to keep the heat on them. The Senate has the power right now and they may be able to bottleneck this thing through the end of the year, and even into next year,” Ryan said. “But, they will suffer the consequences and we’ve got to keep it an issue or they will pay the consequences at the ballot box.”

And with Trump already battling an abysmal approval rating and the economy, Winkler said Trump still needs those gun owners to vote for him on their ballots.

“If they choose to stay home, it doesn’t look good for his reelection,” Winkler said.

The CSGV’s Patrick thinks his organization, as well as other nonprofits including, rebranded Brady (formerly the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the nation’s oldest gun violence prevention advocacy group that spearheaded required background checks on gun sales by federally licensed firearms dealers a quarter-century ago), the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the youth-driven March for Our Lives, which just released its own gun reform plan, are ready to take on the NRA.

Yet, Winkler believes the NRA has no problem digging in its heels when it comes to gun control for Americans.

“Who knows if they will ever change its stance? Never say never,” Winker said. “As of right now, the NRA doesn’t seem to be on the verge of radical reform any time soon.”

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