A man holds a gun in the exhibit hall of the George R. Brown Convention Center, the site for the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meeting in Houston, Texas on May 3, 2013.
Adrees Latif/Reuters

As Trump takes an interest in background checks, there’s reason for skepticism

At first blush, the news today will probably seem encouraging for gun-safety advocates, but I’d recommend caution.

The White House supports efforts to strengthen background checks for gun purchases in the wake of last week’s shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Donald Trump is open to bipartisan legislation to shore up the background checks system, which is supposed to prevent people with severe mental illness and serious criminal records from purchasing firearms.

“The President spoke to Senator Cornyn on Friday about the bipartisan bill he and Sen. Murphy introduced to improve Federal Compliance with Criminal Background check Legislation. While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the President is supportive of efforts to improve the Federal background check system,” Sanders said in a statement.

Right off the bat, note that this is not an explicit endorsement of a pending proposal. Rather, the president is now saying he’s “supportive of efforts” to strengthen background checks.

But that’s not the reason for skepticism.

1. Trump and the White House are unfortunately unreliable sources of information as it relates to the president’s future plans. It’s entirely possible that Trump will say the exact opposite of today’s vague statement in a tweet later this evening. Or he’ll chat with some far-right policymaker who’ll convince him it was his idea to weaken existing background checks.

2. The legislation at issue here is quite modest. As we discussed in November, the Cornyn-Murphy bill is focused on improving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, by encouraging states and federal agencies to send more information to the database, making the system more effective without expanding its reach. It’s a sensible idea, and a step in a constructive direction, but no one should look at this as a major reform initiative.

3. Measures such as Cornyn-Murphy and bump-stock reforms have a habit of generating fleeting bipartisan support, but with NRA-backed Republicans controlling the levers of federal power, follow-through tends to be a problem. Will policymakers remain focused on the issue a week from now? How about a month from now?

4. Passing any kind of gun-related measures through the Republican-led House seems daunting, but in this case, the lower chamber has already approved a related proposal. The catch is, GOP House members packaged it with a bill that would make it easier for Americans to carry concealed firearms across state lines, without regard for existing state safeguards. This happens to be one of the NRA’s top priorities for this Congress.

I’m not saying progress is impossible, but it’s probably best to keep expectations low.

Donald Trump, Gun Policy and John Cornyn

As Trump takes an interest in background checks, there's reason for skepticism