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Trump's Potshots on Guns Put GOP in the Crossfire

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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The four measures to tighten gun laws that got shot down in the Senate on Monday provided further evidence that Donald Trump can’t even get right with his supporters, much less enemies in his own party.

In the wake of the June 12 massacre in an Orlando night club, the presumptive Republican nominee took on one of his most important allies, the National Rifle Association, inadvertently, with two completely opposite positions: Flanking the powerful lobby on the left, he advocated barring those on the terrorist watch list from buying guns -- one of the measures that failed to pass on Monday that is anathema to the NRA. And coming at them from the right, a place that is hard to get to without falling off the face of the earth, he suggested that the club-goers would have been better off had they been armed, too, and able to shoot the terrorist “right smack between the eyes."

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The chasm between what Trump thinks he knows and what he actually knows is so gaping that he ends being against you even when he’s for you. His muddled gun policy is like his saying how much he “loves the gays,” but would appoint judges opposed to gay marriage. It’s also reminiscent of his telling MSNBC’s Chris Matthews at a town hall that he would punish women who got abortions, a bridge too far for the most rabid anti-abortion activists. They would shoot a doctor before taking such an unpopular position.

Trump doesn’t adjust easily. There was push back when he first lobbed his observation that there would have been many fewer casualties if the merrymakers at Pulse in Orlando had arms, a proposal to mix high spirits, alcohol and hormones so ill-advised that even the NRA thinks it would be reckless. But Trump kept at it, repeating himself as late as Saturday at a rally in Arizona.

That was a bullet the NRA couldn’t dodge. On Sunday’s talk shows, the lobby had to take him down hard. On "Face the Nation," Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre said, "I don't think you should have firearms where people are drinking." On ABC’s “This Week,” Executive Director Chris Cox said the idea “defies common sense.”

Trump heard that thunderclap. Unlike the Republican senators and governors who worry about down-ballot contamination from the nominee, these are buddies he can’t afford to lose. On Monday morning, Trump tweeted, “When I said that if, within the Orlando club, you had some people with guns, I was obviously talking about additional guards or employees.”

He "obviously" wasn’t talking about that but that’s how Trump rolls, knowing he will be dominating a new news cycle before the last one catches up with him.

As Monday's vote showed, it will take more than a tweet to get the NRA to get on board with banning people on the FBI's terror watch and no-fly lists from buying guns. After all, the Senate only allowed a vote on this eminently sensible proposal after a 14-hour filibuster by Democrats.

What Trump didn't understand when he blurted out such a popular idea is that sensible people don’t vote on the single issues of gun control but gun owners and the NRA do. The most intense emotion of lawmakers right now isn’t remorse over the lost souls in Orlando -- or Sandy Hook or Charleston -- but fear of losing their seats for going against the NRA and its deep pockets. 

That's why some on Capitol Hill will -- on purpose or not -- end up protecting Trump from the enormity of his apostasy, even as they protect themselves. They’d rather do anything than take a gun-control vote right after the biggest massacre in U.S. history.

While Trump’s been running his mouth, Senators John Cornyn and Charles Grassley have devised a divert-and-defeat workaround that will protect lawmakers from their own cowardice. They will look like they favor a crackdown on suspected terrorists getting guns -- Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s measure -- but will actually be voting for a milquetoast bill with so many hoops to jump through that it wouldn’t do much of anything to stop assault weapons from getting into the hands of the wrong people. The maneuver allowed the NRA to say that it and Trump were in sync on the measures and that any suggestion to the contrary was “a media-created diversion.”  

The sad truth is that gun control died when Feinstein’s bill was defeated after the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The children murdered that day were so little they thought Mom or Dad or some other adult would never let them come to harm. Congress could be playing that role starting now. Barring a miracle, it won’t. And neither will Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net