President Trump, about whom it's fair to say the National Rifle Association was more enthusiastic than any presidential candidate in history, surprised people this week by seeming to endorse measures to restrict access to guns. As ever, you could find the contents of Trump's mind, however fleeting his feelings might be, in a tweet:
I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue - I hope!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2018
Wow! Real gun safety measures, from this president? It sounds too good be true!
Well, that's because it probably is. The most likely outcome of this period of intense debate around guns is that Trump does absolutely nothing. The second-most likely outcome is that he does next to nothing.
Let's examine that tweet for a moment, beginning with "Comprehensive Background Checks." Reading that phrase, you may have thought Trump was suggesting universal background checks, meaning that people would have to pass a check for all gun purchases, including private sales, not just those from licensed dealers as federal law demands now.
But you'd be wrong. Trump was almost certainly talking about a bill that Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Republican Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) proposed last November after a mass shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. That shooter was able to buy weapons because the Air Force failed to report his domestic violence conviction to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which would have prevented him from buying guns. All the bill does is remind federal agencies of their obligation to report into the NICS and provide some incentives for state agencies to do the same. It's so limited even the NRA doesn't oppose it, which tells you about all you need to know.
Any time you hear Trump or the White House talk about "strengthening background checks," that bill is what they're referring to — not the universal background checks supported by over nine in 10 Americans in every poll.
Back to Trump's tweet, what does "an emphasis on mental health" mean? Will Trump be proposing further restrictions on guns for people who suffer from mental illnesses? No, he won't. "Raise age to 21"? The age for what? Buying a military-style rifle like an AR-15? That would be something, since the shooter in Parkland, Florida, bought his legally, even though the minimum age to buy a handgun there is 21. But raising that age minimum is something the NRA and many pro-gun Republicans oppose. The chance that Trump would keep advocating for that after talking it through with some of his hard-right supporters is approximately zero.
Bump stocks? That's pretty uncontroversial — the Justice Department is reviewing whether the devices, which allow a semi-automatic gun to be fired like a machine gun (and which the perpetrator of the massacre in Las Vegas apparently used), can be regulated under existing authority. The NRA is taking a wait and see approach to that, and their lack of opposition shows it's something even gun nuts might be willing to sacrifice.
Meanwhile, Trump has decided that the solution to people shooting up schools is — you'll never guess — more guns! On Thursday, he went on a bizarre and disturbing stream-of-consciousness rant about how great it would be if our schoolteachers went to work every day packing heat. Here's an excerpt:
We have to harden our schools, not soften them. A gun-free zone to a killer or somebody who wants to be a killer, that's like going in for the ice cream … Frankly, you have teachers that are Marines for 20 years, they retire and become a teacher. They're Army, Navy Air Force, they're Coast Guard, they're people who have won shooting contests for whatever, this is what they do … One of the fake news networks, CNN, said I want teachers to have guns. I don't want teachers to have guns, I want certain highly adept people, people that understand weaponry, guns, if they really have that aptitude … Because these people are cowards. They're not going to walk into a school if 20 percent of the teachers have guns … For instance, if the coaches, who I guarantee have plenty of experience with weapons, if they have guns, you need it hard … So I know where you stand on it. You want a hardened school, and I want a hardened school too. [President Trump]
Got that? He doesn't want teachers to have guns, he just wants the teachers who are shooting champion military veterans to have guns, and he seems to think that describes 20 percent of America's teachers and 100 percent of its coaches. If you know any teachers, ask them if they think they and their colleagues ought to carry guns to class. I promise you, they'll either tell you you've lost your mind or just laugh in your face.
What we're seeing here is a repeat of how Trump reacted to the issue of DREAMers, the young people brought to America as children who grew up here but lived in a legal limbo until President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. As a presidential candidate and then president, Trump repeatedly expressed a desire to care for the DACA recipients and make sure they could stay in the U.S. But when it came time to actually make policy, Trump canceled DACA and then torpedoed all efforts to find a permanent solution for the DREAMers. Under the influence of hard-line aides and allies in Congress, he was unwilling to follow through on the compassionate sentiments he had expressed before.
The same thing is likely to happen on guns. When he's done spinning out absurd fantasies of John Wick 3: Algebra Teacher, he'll hear from his NRA allies and the Republicans in Congress who do their bidding, and the only policy changes he'll wind up supporting are those likely to have next to no effect on the endless tide of gun murders in America. As long as you listen carefully and know the pattern Trump follows on issues like this one, you don't have to wonder what he'll do.