As President Trump rallies to the gun control cause, many conservatives are relying on congressional Republicans to block any restrictive new gun laws. The problem is that congressional party breakdowns make it more difficult for pro-gun Republicans to stave off new gun control laws under President Trump than it would if Hillary Clinton was in the White House.
If Hillary was president, resisting gun control would be a simple matter. Republicans control the Senate with 51 seats. As long as Republicans remained unified, they could filibuster anti-gun bills proposed by the Democrats. The anti-gun coalition would need 60 votes to break the filibuster, which would be difficult to achieve.
Things are different with President Trump in office, however. For most of the gun control proposals on the table, the Democrats can probably count on unanimous support from their caucus. The 49 votes controlled by Democrats are not enough to pass the bill alone, but, with a Republican president working to bring Republicans across the aisle, gun control has a chance that it would not have with a Democratic president.
Eleven Republican votes for cloture would be needed to advance the bill to a Senate vote. After cloture, President Trump would only have to flip two Republican votes to pass the bill.
In the current anti-gun climate, any number of Republicans might be pressured to vote with the Democrats on a “common sense” gun control bill. Perennial aisle-crosser Susan Collins (R-Maine), who sponsored a bill in 2016 to ban gun sales to people on the no-fly and terrorist watch lists, would be a senator likely to join the effort. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is another Republican moderate to watch. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), Pat Roberts (R-Kans.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have already expressed support for an increase to the minimum age for purchasing rifles.
Other Republicans joining the coalition might come from both blue states and the strong pro-Trump camp. Republicans from states that lean Democrat would feel pressure from their constituents to support the legislation while pro-Trump Republicans would feel pressure from the White House.
A fail-safe for pro-gun Americans is the Republican congressional leadership. With control of both houses of Congress, Republican leaders have a lot of leeway in deciding which bills are scheduled for floor votes and which are pigeonholed away to die a silent death in committee. Having a president of the same party who supports anti-gun legislation weakens this fail-safe by allowing the president to influence his fellow partisans.
The Hill reports that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called on senators to “try to make some progress on the bills we agree on,” in particular bills to enhance background checks and make schools more secure. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the majority whip, is sponsoring a bill with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) that would improve background checks. Cornyn has expressed doubt about the effectiveness of raising the minimum age, but both he and McConnell are undoubtedly under heavy pressure from the White House.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has indicated that gun control may have a more difficult time in the House. Republicans hold a 45-seat majority in the House of Representatives so gun control advocates would need to flip at least 23 Republican votes.
Speaker Ryan told reporters, “We shouldn’t be banning guns for law-abiding citizens, but focusing on making sure that citizens who shouldn’t get guns in the first place, don’t get those guns.”
In the end, the success or failure of the gun control effort will depend largely on Donald Trump. For his part, Trump seems to relish the opportunity to forge a historic bipartisan coalition. The president has engaged in a rhetorical attack on the National Rifle Association in recent days and said that he willing to fight the gun lobby.
“You have a different president now,” Trump said in meeting on gun control in the White House Monday. “I mean, you went through a lot of presidents, and you didn't get it done. But you have a different president, and I think, maybe, you have a different attitude, too. I think people want to get it done.”
Sen. Murphy agrees that Trump is the key. “Mr. President, it's going to have to be you that brings the Republicans to the table on this,” Murphy told the president, “Because right now, the gun lobby would stop it in its tracks.”
“I like that responsibility, Chris. I really do,” the president replied. “I think it's time. It's time that a president stepped up, and we haven't had them -- and I'm talking Democrat and Republican presidents. They have not stepped up.”
It would be an unhappy irony for gun owners if Donald Trump, endorsed by the NRA even though he was a former Democrat who had supported gun control in the past, became the Republican president who overcame the gun lobby to enact the first significant gun control legislation since the 1990s. Stranger things have happened.