Senate Democrats will face strong resistance from GOP leaders in their drive for legislation to prevent a suspected terrorist from purchasing firearms, but they may receive support from a surprising source: Donald Trump.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and has repeatedly denounced bans on specific types of weapons, like the AR-15 variant used in Orlando. However, his top policy adviser signaled Tuesday morning that Trump might be willing to support restrictions on gun purchases by people on federal “watch” lists.
Democrats on Monday declared they would press for a vote again as early as this week on a measure to grant the Justice Department authority to bar a known or suspected terrorist from purchasing rifles, guns or explosives if authorities believe the weapon might be used in the commission of a terrorist act – or if the purchaser’s name appears on a federal terrorism watch list or “no-fly” list. Clinton in a speech Monday embraced the idea, saying that it was essential to preventing terrorists from obtaining weapons.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), was rejected 45 to 54 last December. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and other Democratic leaders say it will be far more difficult for Republicans to oppose it this time in light of the mass murder of 49 people in an Orlando gay night club that was the deadliest shooting in U.S. history.
In an interview with CNN Tuesday morning, Sam Clovis, Trump’s national campaign co-chair and policy director, said that “there is certainly some validity to the point” that if a person is under a criminal investigation, he or she should be prevented from purchasing a firearm. Claiming that many states, including his home state of Iowa, already have laws on their books preventing people under investigation from purchasing a gun, Clovis said: “So I really don’t have too much of a problem here” with the congressional proposal.
Asked specifically whether Trump would be okay with such legislation, Clovis replied: “I think that if a person is under criminal investigation – and we have plenty of precedence for this out there at the state level – that if you’re under criminal investigation, you probably shouldn’t be allowed to go into a gun [purchase a gun] because that should show up in a background check. I mean those are the kinds of things that the background check should be there for. If you’re on a watch list, if you’re under investigation, those things can be tabbed and tagged and I think that’s exactly the way the states are doing it across the country. And we don’t seem to see much outcry there.”
Trump himself has reserved most of his comment on gun-related legislation in the wake of the Orlando massacre to questions of a ban on weapons like the AR-15, a weapon similar to the U.S. military’s M-16 rifle that is not capable of automatic fire.
“There are millions of them already out there, millions upon millions, so they're already out there,” Trump said in an interview with CBS. “People need protection. They have to protect. So the bad guys will have the assault rifles and the people trying to protect themselves will be standing there with a BB gun.”
He said that Clinton’s support for a ban on so-called “assault” weapons proves “she doesn’t understand the issues.”
As with many of his policy stances, Trump’s position on using lists of people under government surveillance to limit gun purchases is not exactly clear. In November, when he was asked whether people on such lists should be blocked from purchasing firearms, he said, “If somebody is on a watch list and an enemy of state and we know it's an enemy of state, I would keep them away, absolutely.”
However, in the same interview he seemed to suggest that he doesn’t believe any new laws are necessary to make that happen.
“If people are on a watch list or people are sick, you have already — this is already covered in the legislation that we already have,” he said.
That Trump’s position on guns is unclear is not news. The assault weapons ban that he is against today was something he supported in his 2000 book The America We Deserve. “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun,” Trump wrote.
In 2012, after President Obama called for tighter controls on the sale of firearms following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Trump tweeted, “President Obama spoke for me and every American.”
More recently, he has kept to a generally hardline stance on most gun-related issues, repeating the false claim that Hillary Clinton wants to repeal the Second Amendment entirely.
However, barring a dramatic shift in feeling among Congressional Republicans, the debate over the Democrats’ proposed ban will remain academic.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn predicted yesterday that the Democratic plan is not likely to go anywhere, according to Morning Consult, and argued that it’s far from clear the approach would have stopped the Orlando gunman from obtaining the rifle and gun that he used.
“This guy had a weapons license,” Cornyn told reporters. “And he was a security guard. He carries a weapon for a living. So the biggest problem our Democratic friends have is everything they propose is not directed at solving the problem.”