fb-pixel Skip to main content

Politicians are slow to act on guns, even as pressure builds

President Trump met with bipartisan members of Congress to discuss guns and school safety in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Wednesday.SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — Most of America is having a post-Parkland moment over guns. Students are demonstrating about the massacre of their classmates. Corporations are cutting ties to the NRA or pulling back on their own retail gun sales. State lawmakers, and not just in Florida, want to raise the legal age for buying assault weapons.

Even President Trump, who is weak on policy specifics but can certainly read a poll, said Wednesday that he wants action. His statements came as two big retailers said they would no longer sell firearms to people under 21.

But the capital still seems mired in the old standoffs over gun policy, with most Republicans dug in against major change on Capitol Hill, and Democrats opposing change they view as too incremental.


Even with a fresh burst of presidential urgings, a legislative quagmire on guns remains a real possibility. It’s as if Washington is tone deaf to the urgent cries for change across the land.

Unless Trump follows through with his demands for stronger background checks and pushes Republicans in Congress to act, a call he repeated Wednesday in a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers, political leaders are in danger of falling out of step with overwhelming popular demand.

Trump has shown previously that his conciliatory and compromising tone during televised meetings with lawmakers can evaporate later, once the cameras are gone and his White House advisers and allies in Congress get his ear.

That leaves many observers skeptical that a substantive overhaul will take place.

“Even the smallest incremental steps you’d expect out of Washington — the ones that are nothing more than window dressing — you can’t accomplish,” said John Weaver, a longtime Republican consultant. “That says something. Inaction is a choice.”

“It’s a toxic stew where people are afraid to act,” he added. “And who’s going to act in their place? It’s high school kids, suburban mothers, corporate leaders.”


As Washington talks, pressure is continuing to build outside the capital.

Dick’s Sporting Goods, one of the nation’s largest sporting goods retailers, said on Wednesday morning that it would no longer sell assault-style rifles in its Field & Stream stores and that it would stop selling weapons across all of its stores to anyone under age 21, even if local laws allow it. The chain had already stopped selling assault rifles in its namesake stores after the Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter in Connecticut in December 2012.

Also Wednesday, Walmart said it would no longer sell firearms and ammunition to anyone younger than 21. It stopped selling AR-15 guns and other semiautomatic weapons in 2015. The retailer said it is also removing items resembling assault-style rifles from its website.

“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” Edward W. Stack, the chief executive of Dick’s, wrote in an open letter. “We have tremendous respect and admiration for the students organizing and making their voices heard regarding gun violence in schools and elsewhere in our country. We have heard you. The nation has heard you.”

Washington still hasn’t.

House Republicans are waiting on the Senate to act. Senate Republicans are divided on even a relatively modest proposal to enhance existing rules for background checks — something that isn’t opposed by the powerful NRA.

Democrats, meanwhile, are opposed to the enhanced checks measure — because many of them want more substantive legislation, such as universal background checks or a ban on assault weapons. Even one of its chief cosponsors, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, is speaking against it — unless other gun initiatives are also taken up.


Several recent surveys show that support for stricter gun control laws are approaching all-time highs. A CNN poll, for example, showed that 70 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws, the most since 1993.

The numbers are higher on some specific issues, with 87 percent backing laws to prevent felons and people with mental health problems from obtaining guns; 71 percent support an increase in the age requirement for purchasing firearms, to 21 from 18.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed 67 percent support for a federal assault weapons ban. But no one thinks such a measure will even be taken up, because of broad opposition among Republicans and nervousness among Democrats in rural swing states where guns are a way of life.

There are other reasons for the public to be baffled by Washington’s reaction.

Trump, who built an entertainment career and rose to office by identifying and tapping into a widespread sentiment in the populace, has sent mixed signals since the Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

In the days after the killings, he appeared to support raising the legal age for people to buy guns, or at least assault rifles. But then he stopped talking about it. On Wednesday, he said he supported the idea but did not demand that it be in a bill that might emerge from Congress. But he also seemed to signal that if it were in a bill that landed on his desk, he would sign it.


During his afternoon meeting with lawmakers, Trump strongly embraced expanded background checks and preventing the mentally ill from obtaining guns. He also repeated his calls to arm some teachers, even as he chided Republican lawmakers for an unwillingness to take on the NRA.

When told that a higher age limit wasn’t included in a universal background checks bill, Trump told Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania: “You know why? Because you’re afraid of the NRA.”

“It’s time a president stepped up,” he declared at the start. But at the end, he urged lawmakers to get together and figure it out themselves.

Sensing a continued lack of leadership from Washington, states — from Vermont to Oregon — are attempting to take action. In Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, signed an executive order on Monday to prevent those who are deemed a danger to themselves or others from having a gun.

“If the federal government won’t act, states need to do more to prevent the gun violence that has become far too common,” she said in a statement.

Florida’s Legislature is planning to take up a package of gun measures backed by Governor Rick Scott, a Republican. Those include raising the age to buy assault rifles to 21, several measures to prevent mentally ill people from buying guns, and more funding to enhance school security.


The growing disconnect between the public and those in power in Washington — which right now means Republicans, who control both houses of Congress and the White House — is likely to add to the problems Republicans are facing heading into the midterm elections.

Weaver said Congress’s unwillingness to address crucial issues will cause a party that’s already in trouble to face “typhoon winds behind a tsunami.”

“That inaction, that inability to do the basics — even window dressing — is going to cause huge problems,” he said. “It’s really distressing. Not just as a Republican consultant who wants to see the party expand, but as a citizen knowing they’re not able to do anything on any controversial topic.”

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.