WASHINGTON — President Trump urged lawmakers Wednesday to strengthen background checks for gun purchases, seeming to support a bill sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) — while in the same discussion telling Toomey the senator is "afraid of the NRA."
The contradictory notes came in a bipartisan meeting at the White House — broadcast live — in which Trump veered among topics, seemed unfamiliar with some key details, and contradicted strongly held Republican positions on guns.
The NRA-backed president suggested that law enforcement should "take the guns first, go through due process second" to prevent mass shootings and encouraged Toomey to consider amending his background-check bill with a ban on assault-style weapons.
Nonetheless, Toomey emerged believing that Trump's support, combined with the national outpouring of energy since the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting, could add momentum to his background-check plan, which would expand the reviews to cover more commercial firearms sales, including those that occur online or at gun shows. The measure, cosponsored with Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), fell six votes short of clearing the Senate in 2013.
"It does feel as though the atmosphere has changed. It does feel to me as though there are members who were not willing to do something in the past that might be willing now," Toomey told reporters after the meeting.
Trump suggested using his bill as a base and attaching other proposals to pass "one great piece of legislation."
Despite the NRA's fierce opposition to the plan, and the failure of every recent proposal to tighten gun laws, Trump suggested that coming up with a comprehensive bill could win far more than the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate.
"It was very encouraging for the president to certainly endorse the substance of Manchin-Toomey, which I think it was clear he did," Toomey said, though he said he did not know how many votes the bill would receive if a vote was called now.
Trump also pushed for linking Toomey's bill with some ideas that the senator opposes, including raising the minimum age for buying long guns, from 18 to 21.
"I'd rather have you come down on the strong side instead of the weak side," Trump told the lawmakers, "and really strong on background checks."
When Toomey said his bill did not address the age for gun purchases, Trump retorted: "You know why? Because you're afraid of the NRA."
Toomey later pointed out that the NRA fiercely opposed his background-check bill, did not endorse his 2016 reelection, and has not donated to him since his 2010 campaign.
"I didn't take that as directed at me personally," Toomey said. "If there's a Republican who's demonstrated he's not afraid of the NRA, that would be me."
Toomey said he was concerned that raising the purchasing age would infringe on the rights of law-abiding young people. He also opposes banning military-style guns.