White House distances itself from AG Barr’s gun control ideas as NRA pans it

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

(WASHINGTON) — Attorney General William Barr spent Wednesday shopping a proposal to expand background checks to conservative Republicans in Congress. There’s just one problem: President Donald Trump is not on board with any of it.

“That is not a White House document, and any suggestion to contrary is completely false,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said.

That lack of support had the potential of killing the proposal before it was barely out of the gate. But the attorney general pressed on with a memo, obtained by ABC News, that contained ideas for expanding background checks for “all advertised commercial sales,” expanding who could perform the checks and seeking to negate any kind of federal firearms registry — a primary concern for many gun rights groups.

Obtained by ABC News

“The president has made clear he’s interested in any meaningful, workable measures that can provide greater security to the American people. I’ve been up here gathering perspective, kicking around some ideas, so I’m in a better position to advise the president,” Barr told reporters after a meeting with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“The president right now is gathering information, he’s studying a number of proposals. I talked to him today, but he himself has not made any firm decision on any particular proposal at this stage,” Barr said. “I don’t want to get into discussing any particular proposal at this time, but we’re having robust discussions and we’ll see what happens.”

Barr’s ideas, which are still a work in progress according to multiple sources, closely track an earlier, failed proposal by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., with some conservatives already calling the Barr proposal “Manchin-Toomey,” as if in a derogatory way.

At a senators-only lunch, the conversation was consumed by gun control, according to members. As lawmakers await direction from Trump, each voiced their concerns and preferences with regard to gun control. And while senators appeared concerned by what Barr was pitching, they were hesitant to kill it for fear of what Trump might eventually support.

“It was a great family discussion,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., with a laugh, noting that the Barr proposal, similar to Manchin-Toomey, is “the furthest out from Republican dogma.”

“Expanding background checks has always been viewed by a lot of our constituents — by my constituents — as a slippery slope and probably something that is not all that helpful,” Cramer added.

But the North Dakota Republican said he felt like his GOP colleagues did not have their minds made up on gun control.

“I’m not sure it’s a proposal, so much as an idea, but there are a lot of details to be fleshed out,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said.

Hawley met with Barr on Tuesday night to discuss the plan and he came away with many questions but said he wants to see actual legislative text before he makes any conclusions.

“The idea of a registry really bothers me,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., though he said he was open to expanding background checks. “We do have to keep the guns out of the hands of people should not have them, like felons. …The question I have, though, is what happens if another administration comes in and we want to make sure there are safeguards against that, because there’s only one step between a registry and confiscation.”

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., told reporters, “A lot of people don’t have the details. …I don’t think the White House proposal has completely gelled yet.”

“I think this is still a very fluid process. I don’t think the White House has decided on a way forward,” he added. “I’m willing to read and listen, but to me, the legal and the policy analysis is very clear. The burden is on the proponent when you curtail a constitutional right in the interest of public safety — you have to demonstrate causal evidence.”

But as the attorney general was making the rounds, the National Rifle Association was also making calls to lawmakers, according to a Republican senator who asked not to be named.

“Let’s just say, they’re not on board with this,” the senator told ABC News.

In a statement to ABC News, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action Executive Director Jason Ouimet said, “This missive is a non-starter with the NRA and our 5 million members because it burdens law-abiding gun owners while ignoring what actually matters: fixing the broken mental health system and the prosecution of violent criminals.”

That left the proposal in a precarious position, given the sway the gun rights group has with lawmakers despite its own internal political turmoil.

One Democratic source close to the talks was not surprised by the NRA effort.

“The NRA and conservatives have worked against common sense background checks for years. It’s no surprise that they are trying to kill a responsible bill at the last minute,” the source said.

A source familiar with Barr’s effort told ABC News that the attorney general’s document is “just one of a number of options” that the Department of Justice has pitched the White House on, but added that Republican lawmakers in the meetings with Barr and White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland have, for the most part, not been receptive to the idea of the outline for expanding background checks.

According to the source, part of that hesitation is because Trump — who is currently traveling in California — has still not made clear to aides what measures he would throw his support behind.

But not all GOP lawmakers are opposed to expanding background checks to include all commercial sales, as Barr has proposed.

Several Republicans — including top Trump ally Graham — do, however, appear open to this idea, but they want additional information and are demanding more details, which are not yet available. And therein lies another problem for supporters of the effort.

The longer this proposal hangs out there without support from the president, the more time opponents have to bury it.

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