An employee reviews a customer's application as part of a background check for a handgun sale, in Houston, Texas.
Photo by Michael Stravato/New York Times/Redux

After latest mass shooting, Trump downplays background checks

Updated

In February 2018, on the heels of the mass shooting at a Florida high school, Donald Trump announced that he would be “strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks.” The president backed off soon after.

In early August 2019, on the heels of back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, Trump again expressed support for a “strong” system of background checks. “I think background checks are important,” the Republican told reporters last month, adding, “There’s a great appetite – and I mean a very strong appetite – for background checks. And I think we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before.” The president again backed off soon after.

Over the Labor Day weekend, Trump didn’t bother with the pretense following the latest mass shooting.

President Donald Trump on Sunday said that a mass shooting that took place a day earlier in Texas “really hasn’t changed anything” about how lawmakers are approaching gun control legislation.

“We are in the process of dealing with Democrats and Republicans, and there’s a big package of things that’s going to be put before them by a lot of different people I’ve been speaking to a lot of senators, a lot of house members, Republicans, Democrats – this really hasn’t changed anything, we’re doing a package and we’ll see how it comes about,” Trump said outside of Marine One. “That’s irrespective of what happened yesterday in Texas.”

“Over the last five, six, or seven years, no matter how strong you need the background checks, it wouldn’t have stopped any of it,” he claimed.

It’s notable that Trump saw background checks as a go-to talking point for a while, and now it’s been removed from the president’s rhetorical quiver.

But his comments about “a big package of things” was also interesting, in part because no one can say with confidence whether it exists in reality, and in part because it’s only natural to wonder what the package might contain if it’s real.

As of yesterday, the White House suggested that there really is a package of ideas, including one that stood out.

The Justice Department has drafted legislation to expedite the death penalty for individuals found guilty of carrying out mass shootings, according to Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, who spoke with reporters on Air Force Two on Monday.

Short said the vice president’s policy team is working with Attorney General William Barr on the measure, which is expected to be included in the White House package of gun safety proposals to be presented to Congress.

This comes a month after Trump delivered White House remarks in which he said, “Today, I am also directing the Department of Justice to propose legislation ensuring that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders face the death penalty, and that this capital punishment be delivered quickly, decisively, and without years of needless delay.” Evidently, that proposal will soon be unveiled.

The idea is to discourage mass shootings by threatening to execute the perpetrators. The idea is also unlikely to have much of an effect: as the Associated Press recently reported, most who perpetrate mass shootings “don’t live to face trial.”

More than half the perpetrators of mass shootings since 2006 have ended up dead at the scene of their crimes, either killed by others or dying by suicide, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University.

Death penalty scholars and psychologists say killers motivated by ideology are unlikely to be deterred by punishment. Most of them are willing to die or understand the risk and prepare for it. Some want the fame that an execution could potentially bring to their cause.

If this is what the White House has come up with, reform advocates should probably start lowering their expectations now.

Postscript: “At the state level, Politico reported over the weekend, several new firearm laws took hold in Texas on Sunday, loosening restrictions as to when and where weapons can be carried, one day after the state was rocked by a shooting in which a gunman killed seven and wounded at least 21.”