“Don’t Believe It For A Minute”: Are The NRA And Trump Moderating On Guns? Not On Your Life
The headlines today are full of surprising news on guns, from some of the least likely sources: Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the National Rifle Association. “Trump to meet with NRA about banning gun sales for terror watch list.” “Trump Veers From Party Line on Gun Control.” “In wake of Orlando shootings, gun control getting a fresh look from GOP.” And even “NRA Announces Bizarrely Sane Position on Selling Guns to Terrorists.”
Don’t believe it for a minute. This new effort to make it more difficult for people on the federal government’s terrorism watch list to buy guns is going to meet the same fate as every other gun control measure in Congress.
Yesterday, Trump tweeted, “I will be meeting with the NRA, who has endorsed me, about not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no fly list, to buy guns.” He can talk to them about that if it’s what he wants (which I doubt it is), but it won’t change their minds, because the NRA has a very specific position on the question of banning gun sales to those on the watch list, one you have to read carefully to understand. Here’s what they say:
The NRA believes that terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period. Anyone on a terror watchlist who tries to buy a gun should be thoroughly investigated by the FBI and the sale delayed while the investigation is ongoing. If an investigation uncovers evidence of terrorist activity or involvement, the government should be allowed to immediately go to court, block the sale, and arrest the terrorist. At the same time, due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watchlist to be removed. That has been the position of Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) and a majority of the U.S. Senate.
So: if someone is proven to be a terrorist, the NRA is opposed to letting them buy a gun and would prefer that instead they be arrested. Good to know! Now what about that investigation they want the FBI to undertake before the sale is completed? The reference to John Cornyn is important, because what the NRA supports is an amendment Cornyn proposed back in December, which was defeated in the Senate. It said that when someone on the watch list tries to buy a gun, the Justice Department would have 72 hours to file an emergency petition to a court, inform the gun buyer, allow the buyer to participate with counsel, then convince the judge that there is “probable cause to believe that the transferee has committed or will commit an act of terrorism.” Only then would the sale be stopped.
In practice, how often is the government going to be able to conduct an investigation, assemble an ironclad case, get in front of a judge, and get the judge to rule that the buyer has already committed terrorist acts or is about to, all within 72 hours? Basically never.
That’s in contrast to this amendment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein that Democrats now want to pass, which would allow the Justice Department to stop a gun sale not only to anyone on the watch list but anyone who had been on the watch list in the last five years (Omar Mateen had been on the watch list but had been removed), based on a “reasonable suspicion” (a much lower standard than probable cause) that the person had been engaged in or prepared for some involvement in terrorism.
In other words, Feinstein’s amendment would allow Justice to stop a gun sale to pretty much anybody on the watch list they suspected was a threat, while Cornyn’s amendment would make it almost impossible for Justice to stop a sale to anyone who didn’t already have a bomb strapped to their chest.
We should acknowledge that there are legitimate questions about the watch list itself. Many critics argue that it’s too broad and is full of people who have no involvement with terrorism. And there’s a positive and negative side to Feinstein’s five-year provision. It would mean that someone like Mateen might be identified, but it could also mean that a lot of people who justifiably got themselves off the watch list, and should never have been on it in the first place, could now face bureaucratic hassle and extra government attention they don’t deserve when they want to buy guns. So perhaps this debate could lead members of both parties to take a good look at how the list is operating and come up with a plan to reform it so that it focuses only on people who are genuinely suspicious.
But to return to the NRA and the Republican position represented by the Cornyn amendment, it has a gigantic loophole, one they themselves created. Let’s say you’re on the watch list, and you want to buy yourself an AR-15. You go to your local gun store, but the sale gets stopped by the government. What do you do now? Well, all you have to do is go to a gun show — there’s probably one in your area this weekend — and buy from one of the sellers in attendance who aren’t federally licensed dealers. Or you could go to one of the many online gun marketplaces, and get one there. Or you could find someone in your area selling guns privately, and buy it from them. Because we don’t have a system of universal background checks — which the NRA bitterly opposes and helped kill after the Newtown massacre when it was moving through Congress and had the support of up to 90 percent of the public in polls — there are multiple ways to get just about whatever gun you want no matter who you are.
That’s how the NRA wants it, and that’s how they’re going to work to keep it. And the Republican Party is their partner in this effort. Despite the fact that many kinds of restrictions on guns are broadly popular, even with Republican voters and gun owners themselves, the GOP has not only adopted the NRA’s categorical opposition to any and all restrictions, it has moved that belief to the very center of Republican ideology, along with the commitment to low taxes, small government, and the elimination of abortion rights. While we might see a Republican officeholder here and there buck the party and the NRA on this issue — for example, Rob Portman of Ohio, a vulnerable senator up for reelection this year, is now offering some conditional support for keeping those on the watch list from buying guns — their opposition to both Feinstein’s amendment and a companion Democratic proposal for universal background checks will remain nearly unanimous.
Finally, there’s the question of what Trump actually believes on this issue, and what positions he’ll take. Here’s my prediction: Within the next day or two, Trump is going to walk back his implied support for something like what Democrats are advocating and adopt the NRA position. I suspect this will follow a pattern we’ve seen before, in which out of simple ignorance Trump says something that alarms Republicans, then gets told what his position should be, at which point he changes it. The classic case was when he said women should be punished for getting abortions, and was then told that anti-choice ideology has it that women are helpless victims with no agency, so he walked it back.
For all his transparently phony commitment to the Second Amendment, Trump probably hadn’t thought about this particular issue before, so he didn’t know what he was supposed to say. Once he does, he’ll fall in line. Republicans will kill the Democratic proposals, and we’ll be right back where we started.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, June 16, 2016
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