Gun Control Groups, Having Given Up on Trump, Look to 2020

WASHINGTON — By the time President Trump gave a speech about the weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, on Monday, gun control advocates had long given up on his ability and desire to address gun violence in America.

Mr. Trump’s remarks — which swung from early morning tweets suggesting he would be amenable to expanding background checks to a televised statement three hours later echoing the National Rifle Association’s talking points on gun violence — were less decisive than those he made after the massacre in Parkland, Fla., 18 months ago, and nothing came of those, either.

In the immediate aftermath of past mass shootings, advocates have pressed Congress for new legislation. But the major gun control groups largely skipped that step this weekend, or offered halfhearted rebukes to Republican senators blocking a background checks proposal the House passed in February.

Instead, as far as federal action is concerned, they are looking straight ahead to the next elections.

“As has been consistent with his character, the president is full of empty promises and seems poised to take no action whatsoever,” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords, the gun control organization founded by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. “He offers excuses, not action or results, and clearly what’s going to happen here is that this is going to become a defining issue in the 2020 election.”

Mr. Trump has said nothing about gun laws since the El Paso and Dayton shootings that he did not also say after Parkland — and, in fact, he said much more back then.

In a forum with Attorney General Pam Bondi of Florida and other officials in February 2018, shortly after the Parkland massacre, Mr. Trump unequivocally endorsed background checks and red-flag laws, which allow the temporary removal of guns from people judged to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.

“We will take action, unlike, for many years, where people sitting in my position did not take action,” he said. “They didn’t take proper action. They took no action at all. We’re going to take action.”

He claimed that he had spoken with top N.R.A. officials and told them Congress would have to “toughen up” gun laws, and that he was sure the group would be on board.

The N.R.A. was not on board. Its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, and top lobbyist, Christopher Cox, visited the White House to remind Mr. Trump of their position. Within days, Mr. Trump had changed his public stance.

“We’ve been down this road before,” said John Feinblatt, the executive director of Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control organization funded by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York. “Remember, after Parkland he talked about background checks, and the next morning Wayne LaPierre marched into the White House and that discussion evaporated.”

Having seemingly learned his lesson about crossing the N.R.A., Mr. Trump this weekend adopted the gun rights group’s tactics. He said little beyond expressing condolences and praising emergency responders on Twitter.

The president’s first substantive remarks came Monday morning, when he, on Twitter, offered to trade background checks for “desperately needed immigration reform.” A former N.R.A. official said such an effort, had Mr. Trump followed up on it, would have served only to depress his gun-rights-loving base by making them look expendable while infuriating Democrats who would be unlikely to accept the offer.

By the time he appeared before cameras, Mr. Trump had dispatched with the background checks proposal, instead blaming, as has the N.R.A., video games, mental illness and the internet for the recent gun massacres.

(There is no evidence that the gunmen in the weekend massacres were influenced by video games or suffered from mental illness. And violent video games are common in many countries that do not experience mass shootings at anywhere near the level the United States does. The El Paso gunman’s manifesto railed against immigration and denounced the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” )

Mr. Feinblatt said he had no interest in a deal that paired background checks with a Trump-approved immigration package.

“To make Trump’s narrow form of immigration reform a bargaining chip for gun safety legislation is just a cynical move to guarantee that nothing happens,” he said.

The N.R.A. left the door open on Monday to red-flag laws, also known as extreme-risk protection orders. “It has been the N.R.A.’s longstanding position that those who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves or others should not have access to firearms and should be admitted for treatment,” the group said in a statement.

While the N.R.A. has long expressed openness to red-flag laws in principle, it has rejected most specific proposals as having insufficient due-process protections.

As the El Paso shooting was unfolding, more than 2,000 activists were at a hotel in Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood for a training organized by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an arm of Everytown.

On Saturday night, hundreds of them marched two miles to the White House — while Mr. Trump was crashing a wedding at his New Jersey golf resort — and then to the empty Capitol, chanting, “El Paso!” and “Not one more!”

“My guess is that all those activists left even more fired up to make change because of what happened that day,” Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, said in an interview Sunday.

Supporters of gun control are already running in some prominent races.

Ms. Giffords’s husband, Mark Kelly, is challenging Senator Martha McSally in Arizona. Amy McGrath, whom the Giffords organization endorsed in a House race in Kentucky last year, is challenging the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who has refused to allow a vote on the background checks bill the House passed. And Moms Demand Action is looking at Senate races in Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina and Texas, where Republican incumbents could be vulnerable.

The strategy of focusing on 2020 rather than trying to get legislation through the Republican-controlled Senate was only reinforced by the results of last year’s midterms.

For six years after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Congress passed no major gun restrictions despite a full-scale mobilization by advocacy groups and, at one point, a filibuster by Mr. Murphy. But Democrats pushed a universal background checks bill through the House earlier this year within two months of taking control.

“The awful, tragic reality is that these mass shootings end up making our movement stronger,” Mr. Murphy said. “I wish that weren’t how it worked, but it is, and the end result will be at some point that the makeup of Congress changes and the laws change.”

Reid J. Epstein reported from Washington, and Maggie Astor from New York. Danny Hakim contributed reporting.

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