Don’t Expect Presidential Leadership on Guns


Given Donald Trump’s track record as president, no one should hope or think that he will play a meaningful role in getting new gun regulations enacted. Even though his office has signaled that he may be open to supporting a very limited bill on background checks that has been introduced in Congress, we should know by now that such a signal means nothing.

Start with the more general truths about Trump. First, he is not a leader; instead, he is almost exclusively a disruptor. Since he has neither a well-grounded understanding of government and public policy nor a fixed ideology, the president is best seen as a transactional figure. The public outcry about the most recent school shooting has provoked in Trump a desire to appear sympathetic. Past history strongly suggests that it is merely posturing and that he will end up doing nothing meaningful.

His presidency is primarily about the negative. Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate agreement; he jettisoned U.S. participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership; his Interior Secretary and his EPA head are ravaging environmental regulations as quickly as they can.  His proposed budget focuses heavily on dismantling what is left of the safety net.

Neither is Trump’s legislative record one of leadership. On both the Affordable Care Act and  the Tax Bill, he deferred to Republican conservatives and wasn’t even an effective cheerleader. His contribution to the debate on immigration and DACA was to blow up any chance of an agreement by veering wildly from one position to the next.

Despite the fact that Trump in a much earlier version spoke in favor of more stringent gun regulations, he long ago abandoned that stance and has positioned himself squarely in the corner of the NRA.  For the most part, he has been stunningly silent during his time in office as deaths from handguns pile up.  Trump hasn’t even made much of an effort to take on the role of “Comforter-in-Chief.”

Over the coming days, we’re going to see a bit of performance art by Trump as he engages in a “listening” tour.  The most interesting question will be whether the students who have been invited to the White House will dutifully play the role of props for a “compassionate” president or will they show the rage at inaction by the adults that some have expressed in recent days.  If he allows questions or comments, he won’t have teleprompter responses available to him.

On the other hand, if the event is so tightly scripted that no meaningful role is left to the students, there will certainly be a backlash.  Trump, feeling pressure to do “something” in response to the Florida massacre, may have outsmarted himself.

Whichever way the event plays out, it won’t be decisive for determining Trump’s position in whatever debate on gun legislation may follow.  We already know that the NRA has unfettered access to him.  He is likely also to hold some sort of public event in which Second Amendment advocates bully him not to let their precious Constitutional rights be trampled by an angry mob.

After “thoughtful” consideration, Trump is likely to conclude that more attention needs to be given to the mental health dimensions of the problems.  That position will disregard his acceptance of cuts to funding for treatment programs, his recent decision to sign legislation allowing wider access to guns regardless of mental status and his divisive and often violent rhetoric as a candidate and a president.

The basic point is that no one should look to the president to make significant changes in this country’s approach to gun violence.  That does not mean, however, that despair and inaction are the only options.

If ever there was an issue that called for grassroots activism, this is it.  Unrelenting pressure on elected officials at all levels of government is essential.  The calls for student walkouts, strikes by teachers and students and national rallies are a good first step, but can’t be all that happens.

Fighting back against the influence of the NRA is an achievable objective.  Calling on every elected official to sign a pledge refusing to take political contributions from the NRA is another step.  You’ve seen the lists of how much money various Republican Senators have accepted.  Call them on it, shame them, make it clear that NRA money is “blood money” and that it disqualifies the recipient from public office.

Don’t limited the activism to members of Congress.  Make local and state officials pay a price for their silence on this issue and their support for members of their party who have refused to address the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

Pressure on businesses and corporations that contribute to and support officials who refuse to act on gun regulations and continue to accept NRA money is another avenue of grassroots activism.  Everyone who doesn’t take a stand is complicit in the deaths of those 17 Florida students and all the others that have been cut down before their time because the adults are cowards.

Trump’s outrageous behavior as president has stimulated unprecedented levels of political activism.  Most of it, correctly, is focused on the 2018 congressional as well as state and local elections.  Devoting time and energy to the battle for common sense gun regulations doesn’t detract from that goal; rather, it reinforces it. It is time to stand and be counted.