President Donald Trump has accused members of Congress of being afraid of the National Rifle Association (NRA), as he called for an increase in the minimum age for buying a rifle.
“[The NRA] has great power,” Mr Trump said at a bipartisan meeting with members of Congress on school safety. “They have great power over you people. They have less power over me. I don’t need it. What do I need? But I’ll tell you, they are well-meaning … We have to do what is right.”
Members of Congress have again been anxious to find a solution to prevent mass shootings after an alleged 19-year-old gunman on Valentine’s Day open fired at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida, killing 17 people.
On the first day students of the school resumed their lessons following the shooting, several legislators gathered at the White House to discuss school safety and legislation aimed at combatting gun violence. One such proposal, drafted by Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, is primarily focused on expanding background checks for gun purchases.
Mr Trump asked Mr Toomey about a proposal to raise the age limit for purchasing assault weapons from 18 to 21, a measure the NRA does not support.
“Now, this is not a popular thing in terms of the NRA, but I’m saying it anyway,” Mr Trump said. “Right now, you have to wait to buy a handgun until you’re 21, but you can buy the type of weapon used in a school shooting at 18. I can say the NRA is opposed to it… These are great patriots, they love our country, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree on it.”
Mr Toomey said the age issue is not addressed in his bill with Mr Manchin.
“You know why, because you’re afraid of the NRA,” the President responded.
The Manchin-Toomey bill, which has been circulating since 2013, is different from the more limited “Fix NICS” bill, from Republican Senator John Cornyn and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy.
The Cornyn-Murphy bill offers financial incentives for state and local governments to report information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. It is already facing opposition in the Senate, with Democrats saying it is not meaningful enough to address gun safety in an era when shootings have become normal.
Meanwhile, a succession of Republicans said they were unwilling to move ahead on anything but the most modest proposals.
Mr Trump urged members of Congress on Wednesday to come up with a comprehensive gun bill – but legislators doing so is likely to hamper any ability to get enough support to actually pass the measure.
Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided on gun issues, causing what appears to be a continuous stalemate over measures in Congress that may restrict gun access. Any measure needs at least 60 votes in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-49 majority.
In the background of every gun debate following each mass shooting has been the NRA, one of the most powerful gun-rights organisations, which provides significant campaign contributions to several Republicans and Mr Trump himself.
Mr Trump stunned many legislators in the meeting on Wednesday by embracing gun control measures opposed by the NRA, whose leaders he had met with last Sunday at the White House.
“Mr President, the reason nothing has gotten done here is because the gun lobby has a veto power over any legislation on guns before Congress,” said Mr Murphy, whose constituents include the families of victims in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. “I wish that wasn’t the case, but it is. If all we end up doing is the stuff that the gun industry supports this isn’t worth it. We are not going to make a difference.”
The Connecticut senator added: “I’m glad that you sat down with the NRA [on Sunday], but we will get 60 votes on a bill that looks like the compromise on background checks if you support it if you come to Congress, if you come to Republicans, and say we are going to do a Manchin-Toomey-like bill to get background checks it will pass. If this meeting ends up with vague notions of future compromise, then nothing will happen.”
Mr Trump told Mr Murphy that he is ready to take a lead on the issue.
“I like that responsibility, Chris,” Mr Trump said. “I really do. I think it’s time that a president stepped up. I’m talking Democrat and Republican presidents, they’ve not stepped up.”