Senate Republicans are treading cautiously on a background checks plan floated by Attorney General William Barr that has been decried as a “non-starter” by the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Barr floated the proposal to GOP offices on Wednesday as the Senate inches toward doing something on gun control amid growing public pressure created by a seemingly endless string of mass shootings.
But Barr was careful to tell Republicans that his memo on background checks, titled “Idea for New Unlicensed-Commercial-Sale Background Checks,” did not have the backing of President Trump.
“I’m up here just kicking around some ideas, getting perspectives so I can be in a better position to advise the president,” Barr told reporters. “But the president has made no decision yet.”
GOP lawmakers, for their part, were decidedly noncommittal, with several saying they still wanted to hear what Trump would back.
“It’s one thing to have a few ideas on paper,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who met with Barr and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland on Tuesday.
“But in terms of actually being a concrete proposal where you can say, ‘How do you feel about this?’ I need to see a lot,” Hawley told reporters, summarizing his meeting with Barr.
“My question was, where’s the president on this? Is this something — I asked that question directly — is this something the president supports?”
Hawley said Ueland couldn’t say whether Trump backs the Department of Justice (DOJ) proposal.
“That’s an important piece, because if the president doesn’t support it, there’s no point. It’s not going to become law,” he added.
The NRA moved quickly to dismiss the proposal, which would expand background checks along the lines of a 2013 amendment to a gun violence bill that was sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).
“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,” said Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.
Like Manchin-Toomey, the proposal would expand background checks for all gun sales over the internet and at gun shows. It would create a new class of licensed transfer agents, who would be empowered to conduct background checks for commercial sales in addition to federally licensed firearms dealers.
Under the proposal, licensed transfer agents would not have an inventory of guns to sell but would be authorized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to conduct background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
It would require that all commercial gun sales produce two forms, a bill of sale that would record the details of the sale, and a certification from either a licensed firearms dealer or transfer agent recording that a successful background check has taken place.
In addition, if someone attempts to buy a firearm and fails a background check, that person would be reported to law enforcement officials — an idea that Toomey has introduced in a separate bill co-sponsored with Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.).
A White House official on Wednesday said the memo was produced by the Department of Justice.
Toomey on Wednesday praised Barr’s effort to stimulate debate among Senate Republicans.
“I think he has advanced some ideas that are very constructive, very thoughtful, and could go a long way toward expanding background checks in a way that poses absolute minimal inconvenience on law-abiding citizens and increases the chances that we would keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people who shouldn’t have them,” he said.
But the reaction from conservatives suggested the missive is unlikely to win Trump’s support or become law.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who also met with Barr on Tuesday, warned that Democrats could use an expansion of background checks as a step toward confiscating guns. Just last week, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, whose home city of El Paso, Texas, was the site of a mass shooting in August, embraced the idea of confiscating AR-15s and AK-47s during a debate.
“Of the 10 Democrats on stage running for president, three are explicitly supporting gun confiscation by the federal government,” Cruz said Wednesday after Senate Republicans discussed gun control proposals at a weekly lunch meeting.
“If we want to stop crimes, we need to focus on the bad guys, not the good guys,” he warned.
He argued a better path would be to pass legislation he has sponsored with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would plug holes in the national criminal background check system and crack down on straw purchasers of firearms who help pass along guns to prohibited individuals.
Barr’s proposal attempts to allay concerns about the future creation of a national firearms registry by limiting the paperwork requirements.
Under the Justice Department’s plan, if the buyer of a firearm passes the background check and purchases the weapon, the person who sells it would receive a copy of the form certifying a successful background check.
Licensed gun dealers and transfer agents would not maintain these records, a provision intended to calm the fears of Second Amendment advocates. The record-keeping requirements of the proposal would be enforced by civil penalties. People who sell guns using a transfer agent would be granted the same civil immunity as federally licensed firearms dealers, according to the Justice memo.
Barr has also met with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a prominent House conservative and close Trump ally.
Democrats were left out of Barr’s initial round of consultations.
“Not a single Democrat has seen this or signed off on it and my understanding is the president hasn’t approved it either. It’s hard to know whether this is constructive or not,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), a leading Democratic negotiator on the issue of preventing gun violence.
Only four Senate Republicans voted for the Manchin-Toomey proposal in 2013 and only two of them, Toomey and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), are still in Congress.
Barr met with Murphy, Toomey and Manchin early Wednesday evening, but the three senators said afterward that they were still in the dark about when Trump will make a decision.
“It’s up to the president now to decide what he’s comfortable with and what he decides to go forward with,” Manchin said.
Asked if Barr indicated how Trump felt about the DOJ background check proposal, Toomey added with a laugh, “No, is the short version.”
— Scott Wong contributed to this report.