Sen. Dianne Feinstein got a high-profile boost for her new legislation to raise the minimum age for purchasing assault rifles.
President Donald Trump raised the issue, unprompted, during a roughly hour-long televised meeting with Feinstein and other members of Congress Wednesday afternoon at the White House. “I think it’s something you have to think about,” Trump said at the gathering to discuss school safety. “It doesn’t make sense that I have to wait until I’m 21 to get a handgun but I can get this weapon at 18,” he added, referring to assault rifles.
Trump’s comments came the same day Feinstein and Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake formally rolled out their bipartisan legislation to raise the minimum age for purchasing assault weapons and high capacity magazines from 18 to 21. The California Democrat, sitting directly to the president’s left at the White House meeting, interjected at one point, asking if he’d sign legislation to raise the age to 21.
Trump said he’d give it “serious thought,” even though he acknowledged the National Rifle Association opposed such a proposal. The president said he’d been “asked that question more than any other question” in the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people.
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He also didn’t rule out the idea of outlawing assault weapons, like the semiautomatic AR-15 rifle gunman Nikolas Cruz used to mow down students and teachers at Stoneman Douglas High. Feinstein pitched her 2017 legislation to renew the ban at the beginning of the meeting, handing Trump a copy of the bill. She was the author of the original assault weapons ban that President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994. It expired in 2004.
Later, the president asked Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia if they could fold Feinstein’s legislation (and another proposal from Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobucher) into their bipartisan background checks bill. “Can you add what Amy and Dianne have, can you add them in?” Trump asked. Feinstein’s gleeful reaction, smiling widely and appearing to plead with Toomey and Manchin, immediately began circulating on Twitter.
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, were trying not to grimace. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas tried to pour cold water on Trump’s suggestion about the assault weapons ban and other proposals the president advocated for during meeting – which are well beyond what GOP lawmakers are willing to consider. Gun rights groups also promptly rejected the president’s proposals.
“President Trump and Congress need to stop talking about passing more burdensome gun control laws and start working to pass common-sense legislation to protect and advance the right to keep and bear arms,” Richard Thomson, grassroots director at the Sacramento-based Firearms Policy Coalition, said in a statement.
Without Republican support, it’s highly unlikely any of these more ambitious proposals will move through Congress.
“The biggest thing is to act,” Cornyn reminded Trump. Cornyn and other Republicans are arguing that the one thing Congress members from both parties can agree on is the Texas Republican’s legislation to improve the data that goes to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System or NICS. The House passed their version of the bill last December.
Democrats say that’s just a start. “Fix NICS would be a good thing to do, but it’s a tiny step when we need a giant leap. It cannot be the only thing we do,” Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday in a speech on the Senate floor. In particular, Schumer is advocating for universal background checks legislation along the lines of what Manchin and Toomey have proposed. Among other things, it would close loopholes that allow gun buyers at gun shows or on the Internet to avoid background checks. The proposal garnered 54 votes in the Senate in 2013, not enough to overcome a filibuster.
But Manchin and Toomey argued Wednesday that the president’s support could lead to a different outcome this year. They predicted it will would get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate with his backing.
The president reiterated over the course of the meeting that he wanted a “comprehensive” bill to fix the background checks system, as well as strengthen school security and address mental health issues. He said the legislation would not have to address bump stocks – the device the Las Vegas gunman used last October that allowed his semi-automatic weapon to fire like an automatic weapon. Feinstein introduced legislation in the fall to outlaw that device, as well.
Trump insisted at the meeting he could ban bump stocks via executive action. “You don’t have to worry about bump stocks, that will be gone,” he said, adding, “we’ll have that done pretty quickly.” Feinstein has continued to argue that the administration does not have that authority, and that congressional action is needed to amend the law on automatic weapons. But she did not raise the point with Trump on Wednesday.
Instead, Feinstein focused on assault weapons, which has been a priority of hers for decades. It’s also one of the issues she’s emphasizing in her bid for reelection this fall. Last weekend in San Diego, Feinstein promised an audience at the California Democratic Party’s annual convention that she would not rest “until we get these AR-15s off of the streets and out of the hands of people who would use them to kill others.”
Her exchanges with the president on Wednesday may not help her with California’s Democratic faithful, however. At one point on Wednesday the president told Feinstein she had “some very good ideas” -- praise that will certainly not be a badge of honor among California’s left. They loathe Trump and already regard Feinstein with suspicion for her moderate positions on some issues. The party’s liberal base refused to endorse the 25-year incumbent at their convention.
A majority of delegates instead threw their support to a Democratic challenger, state Senate President Kevin de León. On Wednesday, a de Leon aide retweeted the image of Trump and Feinstein smiling during the meeting along with a comment referring to them as “best friends.”
De León’s campaign has received a jolt of momentum over the past month thanks to a string of high profile endorsements. But Feinstein still has a substantial lead in the early polls, as well as in fundraising.
Back at the Capitol Wednesday evening, Feinstein struck a more measured tone about the prospects for new guns laws in Washington. “I thought the president did a good job. He listened and tried to move people together. Now whether that works in getting something done, I don’t know.”
Brian Murphy contributed to this report