One word marks President Trump’s statements on gun laws since the Florida school shooting: confusion.
Consider just this week. On Wednesday, Trump shocked conservative allies by appearing to publicly back a comprehensive set of strict new rules on guns—only to have apparently have had his mind changed by Thursday after a meeting with the National Rifle Association’s top brass, where—according to one lobbyist—the president said he was against gun control, and even lauded it as a “great” meeting on Twitter.
Enter press secretary Sarah Sanders, who, on Friday morning, tried to clear up Trump’s stance on guns, but, if anything, made the president’s position even more opaque. Sanders said the NRA has no concerns about the president’s approach, but that Trump still wants to “take guns way from people who shouldn’t have them.” She said Trump wanted “to improve the background-check system,” but rejected the idea that he supported universal background checks.
“Universal means something different to a lot of people,” she told reporters.
The fresh intervention came just hours after NRA Executive Director Chris Cox tweeted: “I had a great meeting tonight with [Trump] and [Pence]. We all want safe schools, mental health reform and to keep guns away from dangerous people. POTUS & VPOTUS support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don’t want gun control.”
On Fox & Friends on Friday morning, Sanders said: “I don’t think the NRA has had concerns with this president. He’s been very committed to supporting the Second Amendment, but also looking for ways that we can promote school safety and reduce gun violence. This is something that we’ll been having ongoing conversations with.”
Sanders’ statement is significantly weaker than what Trump appeared to be proposing Wednesday afternoon, when, in a televised meeting with Senate leaders, he said: “I like taking guns away early. Take the guns first, go through due process second.”
Gun-rights advocates heavily condemned those comments, with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) taking a shot at Trump, saying: “Strong leaders do not automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them. We have the Second Amendment and due process of law for a reason. We’re not ditching any constitutional protections simply because the last person the president talked to today doesn’t like them.”
But asked Friday specifically what action Trump is seeking to take on gun safety, Sanders said the president supports the bill introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), which would hold government agencies accountable if they failed to upload individuals’ criminal histories to the FBI’s background-check system.
However, in another U-turn, the press secretary appeared to retract Trump’s stated support for Sen. Pat Toomey’s bill that would bring much stricter background checks. In the Wednesday meeting, Trump suggested using the Pennsylvania Republican’s bill as “a base” and attaching other proposals for “one great piece of legislation,” describing the proposed Toomey-Manchin law as “the best we’ve ever done” on gun control.
Trump even went so far as telling Toomey to strengthen the bill, asking if he left out a proposal to raise the gun-purchasing age to 21 from his bill because senators are “afraid of the NRA.”
“The president has already expressed support for Sen. Cornyn’s legislation, he’s also supported the Stop Gun Violence Act,” said Sanders. “Those are two pieces of legislation in their current form that the president supports.”
However, Sanders added: “The Toomey bill he has not fully gotten on board with. They’re still kind of working out some of the final pieces of that legislation. Until it gets to its final stage, we’re not going to weigh in, but we’re going to continue to closely watch that and engage with a number of members of Congress to help improve the system.”
Finally, asked to explain some individual measures the president supports rather than bills, the press secretary said Trump was primarily focused on improving the background-check system.
“Some of the things he’d like to see are improving on how the background system works as largely done through Senator Cornyn’s bill and that’s one of the big reason he supports that,” said Sanders.
“He’s looking for ways we can improve the mental-health system so that we can take guns way from people who shouldn’t have them. These are all the types of things he’s looking for and hope are reflected in legislation that Congress puts forward.”