File Photo: Rhino 500 handguns are on display at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meetings and Exhibits on April 14, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images, File

White House reviews ‘politically problematic’ polling on guns

In February 2018, Donald Trump hosted a fairly long meeting with congressional leaders over gun policy, and the president told attendees how he viewed the political landscape.

“The background checks are so important,” Trump said. “People are afraid to do background checks because you’re afraid of somebody. And you know what? You’re going to be more popular if you do – if you have a strong, good – but I don’t care who’s endorsing you or not endorsing you, you’re going to be more popular if that’s what you’re into.”

He added, “I don’t understand why this hasn’t happened – for the last 20 years, nothing has happened.”

Perhaps he understands a little better now.

Trump met at the White House yesterday with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the lead sponsors of a federal background-check bill, and as the New York Times reported, White House officials reminded the policymakers of polling data that’s “politically problematic for the president.”

Mr. Trump’s aides were on hand for the meeting, and the president told Mr. Manchin that a background checks bill that the senator had pushed for with a Republican counterpart, Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, was still on the table, according to the people briefed on the discussion.

But the polling data, White House aides said, indicated that the issue does not help the president with his core base of supporters, according to the people briefed on the meeting.

So much for “you’re going to be more popular if that’s what you’re into.”

In the wake of some of the more recent mass shootings, Trump has expressed support for ambitious new gun laws, including, in his words, a “strong” and “comprehensive” system of background checks.

But this week, following another mass shooting in Texas, the president didn’t bother talking up the issue, and instead downplayed the need for expanded background checks.

On the surface, the idea that the White House has seen polling on guns that’s “politically problematic for the president” seems to be backwards.

After all, it was just last week – before the latest mass shooting – that Quinnipiac released a national poll showing broad public support for new reforms, with 93% supporting universal background checks, 82% endorsing mandatory licensing to purchase a gun; and 60% supporting a ban on assault weapons.

Common sense suggests a president concerned about his re-election prospects would take one look at numbers like these and scramble to make the public happy.

But for Trump and his team, that’s not quite how this works. Sure, most Americans support gun reforms, but much of the public isn’t prepared to base their vote on the issue – unlike members of the president’s far-right base, which might.

The prospects for progress before the 2020 election remain poor.