Background checks are still on the table for Trump, Chris Murphy says

Connecticut Democrat has doubts about a deal, calling the chances ‘less than 50/50’

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is in talks with the White House on background check legislation for gun purchases. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is in talks with the White House on background check legislation for gun purchases. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 23, 2019 at 12:00pm

Sen. Chris Murphy is working with the White House to keep alive conversations about a potential deal on expanded background checks for gun purchases.

The Connecticut Democrat said Friday he is willing to work with President Donald Trump because lives are at stake, but admits that he sees the chances of passing broad gun control legislation as “less than 50-50.”

Murphy told reporters Friday that in addition to a phone call he had with the president last week, he spoke to White House legislative staff as recently as Thursday night and that he does not think Trump’s support for stronger background checks is off the table.

The president’s position on background checks and red flag laws has changed from day to day and he’s offered support for stronger gun laws in the past before retreating. Trump’s most recent comments have emphasized the need to address mental health and calling new gun laws a “slippery slope.”


[Democrats line up three gun bills in early House Judiciary return]

Murphy said it would be a “nonstarter” if the president tries to tie background checks legislation with an effort to reinstitutionalize people with mental illness, calling the Trump’s rhetoric on mental illness “reckless.”

But aversion to Trump’s language and skepticism from fellow Democrats isn’t stopping Murphy from trying. He has been a leading advocate for stricter gun control laws since the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in his state in 2012. Shootings in Ohio and Texas earlier this month left 31 people dead and renewed debate over tighter gun laws.

“I am going to try, I see it as my obligation…because the stakes are so high,” said Murphy.

Murphy said the White House was committed to an anti gun violence proposal that would include background checks, based on his Thursday evening conversation.

But he said Friday he was “skeptical that these efforts are going to bear fruit. It’s very hard to negotiate with this White House when the president’s public positions seem to change day to day.”

Murphy said that conversations are expected to continue next week with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle involved.

“If this all seems like a ruse, an attempt by the president to make it look like he’s doing something without actually moving the ball down the field, I think we’ll know that in short order,” he said.

What’s on the table

The political reality in the Senate is that if the Republican caucus is not on board with any resulting proposal, it doesn’t have a chance in the chamber.

Murphy credited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with opening the door to potentially bring up background check legislation.

“Senator McConnell, who has been an unconditional supporter of the gun lobby, has opened the door” to background checks legislation, Murphy said. “My guess is he’s doing that because he recognizes that this could be a real political vulnerability” for Republicans heading into the 2020 election.

Murphy said he has not spoken directly with McConnell about gun legislation in the Senate.

Senate Democrats have urged McConnell to call the Senate back from the summer recess to hold an immediate vote on a House-passed gun measure which would expand required background checks to all firearm sales, aimed at covering sales at gun shows, online or in other private settings — with some exceptions such as for hunting, law enforcement and gifts to family. Currently, only licensed firearms dealers must seek a background check.

But Murphy sees a more likely path forward through building consensus around a bipartisan agreement in the Senate, citing White House aides telling him that there is a compromise to be found in legislation from fellow Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal or the bipartisan bill from West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey.

In 2013 the Manchin-Toomey proposal, which would have required background checks on all commercial sales of guns, fell five votes short in the Senate. Murphy sees Toomey as a key ally on the background check issue in the Senate and in conversations with the White House.

“The only way that we pass a bill in the Senate is a proposal, with words on a piece of paper that the president says that he’s for, and the president says it for more than 24 hours at a time,” said Murphy.

Senate Republicans are wary of going out on a limb to support almost anything if they don’t know where the president stands. The volatility of the president’s position and his strategy of hitting back, hard, when Republicans take stances in opposition has had a chilling effect on legislating, according to Murphy. That is why he is focusing on bringing Trump on board, in the hopes that Senate Republicans will follow.

“Very few of them want to go out on a limb without knowing if the president will support them,” he said.

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