'Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun'

WASHINGTON: Shedding support and beset by infighting, the National Rifle Association faces a test of strength after recent twin mass shootings, but few believe it is prepared to loosen its grip on Congress or Donald Trump's administration. Following the tragedies in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio the president urged Democrats and Republicans to "come together" and enact stricter background checks.

But hours later, rather than proclaim in a White House address that he wants Congress to tackle the gun violence epidemic by imposing tougher restrictions on firearms sales, Trump repeated what many Democrats believe is an old trope propagated by the NRA. "Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun," Trump said, in phrasing that echoed a talking point repeatedly used by the NRA and gun rights advocates who say that "guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Democrats have long demanded action on background checks, but Republicans - and the NRA - have steadfastly resisted. Trump's televised remarks made no mention of his earlier call. "When he can't talk about guns when he talks about gun violence, it shows the president remains prisoner to the gun lobby and the NRA," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The NRA has been among the most powerful lobbying groups in US history, and despite a series of high-profile crises in recent months, still wields tremendous clout on Capitol Hill.

It spent $1.6 million in the first half of 2019 lobbying members of Congress against legislation that would expand background on people seeking to purchase guns, CNBC reported, citing disclosure reports. The group also endorsed Trump's campaign in 2016 and spent some $30 million in support of his election, according to funding trackers. But it has faced recent trials, including the ouster of its president Oliver North over a conflict about lavish NRA spending, and the resignation last week of three board members.

NRA finances are in turmoil. Contributions to the group sank more than $26 million, or 21 percent, from 2016 to 2017, NRA figures show. It ran a deficit of $31.8 million in the 2017 reporting cycle, after racking up a $14.8 million deficit the prior year when it spent big backing Trump, according to an audit obtained by OpenSecrets. "If the NRA ever had a weak point, it's right now," moderate Republican congressman Pete King told The Hill newspaper Monday. "They are weakened. And all of us, including the president, should take advantage of that."

Some Republicans are inching toward advocating reforms. Senator Lindsey Graham announced Monday he is co-authoring red flag legislation, which would allow law enforcement agencies and relatives to temporarily take guns from people they suspect to be dangerous to themselves or others. But most in Trump's camp have remained silent on the prospect of reforms such as expanding background checks or banning military-style assault weapons like those used in the weekend attacks.

Languishing in Senate
The Democratic-led House of Representatives passed landmark legislation early this year to close a loophole allowing firearm transfers without a background check at gun shows, or between individuals. The bill lies inert in the Senate, where Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has an A+ rating by the NRA, refuses to hold a vote despite most Americans supporting expanded background checks.
Several Democratic presidential candidates, including former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, joined in condemning McConnell's inaction and Trump's apparent acquiescence. Trump "has decided to side with the NRA, whose lobbyists and campaign contributions control the Republican party," tweeted Sanders. Late Monday, McConnell said he assigned three Republican senators to brainstorm potential solutions to "recent mass murders," but his statement was striking for its absence of any mention of guns.

After the 2018 massacre of 17 students and staff at a Parkland, Florida high school, Trump scolded lawmakers for letting the NRA have "great power over you people," adding: "They have less power over me." But after meeting behind closed doors with NRA leaders, the president fell into lock step, warning that American's constitutional rights were "under siege" from Democrats. On Monday, the NRA said it welcomed Trump's call to address the "root causes" of the latest violence.
"It has been the NRA's long-standing position that those who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves or others should not have access to firearms," it said. In recent months, the NRA has laid low, shuttering live broadcasting at its media arm NRATV. Its past influence on lawmakers has been extraordinary. From 2000 to 2012, the NRA and its firearm industry allies combined to pour $80 million into House, Senate and presidential races, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis. - AFP