HARTFORD, CT — U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy who has been talking with the White House, including one call with President Donald Trump, gives passage of expanded background checks a “less than 50/50 chance” of Congressional approval.
In the days following the shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio Trump said he was eager to implement “very meaningful background checks” and told reporters there was “tremendous support” for action. Earlier this week, Trump said that there are “very, very strong background checks” in place right now for gun purchases even though those background checks only apply to sales through licensed firearm dealers. The statement seemed to signal that he might be walking back his previous support.
On Friday, Murphy visited the Legislative Office Building to give reporters an update on his negotiations with the White House.
During the half-hour press conference, Murphy reminded reporters that Trump walked back his support of expanded background checks in 2017 following a conversation with members of the gun lobby.
However, Murphy said he was on the phone with White House staffers last night and they reiterated the president’s support for expanded background checks.
“I believe the White House is still committed to trying to work on a comprehensive, anti-gun violence proposal that would include strengthening background checks,” Murphy said. “I committed to the White House last night that I would work with them to try and find common ground on expanding background checks in this country.”
While Murphy would prefer “universal background checks” on all gun purchases, he said he would be supportive of expanded background checks. Murphy said the 2013 legislation proposed by then Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, expanded background checks on firearms sold at gun shows and online. That bill was the Congressional response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting where 20 first graders and six educators were killed in 264 seconds. It was voted down 54-46.
Murphy said Trump is aware that if he supports expanded background checks then Republicans in the U.S. Senate will also have to support the measure. A bill needs 60 votes to move forward in the Senate.
“If Donald Trump gets behind a background checks reform bill it will pass the Senate,” Murphy said. “So I think that’s the simple political math here. Republicans are not going to want to fight the president on a wildly popular background checks reform bill.”
Murphy said he’s optimistic because the White House is currently supporting something that would be “stronger than what the broad cross-section of the Republican Senate caucus would be willing to support today.”
He said the only reason the White House is thinking about supporting background checks is because it’s become a “voting issue” and the president is up for re-election in 2020.
“If you want to win the presidency in 2020 you can’t be in the pocket of the gun lobby,” Murphy said. “If you want to win a seat for Congress in the 2020 elections you can’t be owned by the gun industry. You have to show you are willing to take them on.”
He said that wasn’t the case even in 2016. He said in 2018 it was the first time that exit polls show Democratic voters said it was the second most important issue behind healthcare.
“I don’t know if guns would have been on the top 8 list before the 2012 shooting here in Connecticut,” Murphy said.
Murphy said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also opened the door to background check legislation should the president come to an agreement.
While Murphy sees a path forward he’s also skeptical Congress will finally act. It all hinges on what Trump decides.
“I think it’s very hard to negotiate with this White House when the president’s positions seem to change by the day,” Murphy said.
He maintained his commitment though to continue to negotiate with the White House because in states with universal background checks there are 30 to 40 percent fewer homicides or suicides from guns.
“I am skeptical that process will bear fruit,” Murphy said.
Murphy said he’s also made it clear to the White House that if they are going to give the NRA “veto power over this package then it’s not even worth it to have one meeting.”
The NRA opposes expansion of background checks.
Murphy said it only took Trump 24 hours to reverse himself on background checks following the summit in 2017 after the Parkland shooting.
Second Amendment supporters in Connecticut are happy to hear Trump’s remarks this week about background checks.
“We are pleased to see that talk about so-called enhanced background checks is petering out. We have a system in place when utilized and updated properly, works as it should,” Scott Wilson president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said Friday.
“Lawmakers should focus more on what is wrong with prosecutions and convictions, straw purchases and straw sellers. The biggest problem is stolen firearms, and little is being done to deter criminals from acquiring firearms by stealing them.”