As Trump Weighs Gun Safety Bills, Barr’s Plan Draws Skepticism

WASHINGTON — As President Trump weighs potential gun safety legislation, his attorney general on Wednesday floated a plan to expand background checks for gun buyers, but the idea was met with skepticism from key Republicans and appeared to face serious obstacles on Capitol Hill.

The proposal being circulated by Attorney General William P. Barr is similar to the so-called Manchin-Toomey bill, which would extend the current background checks system to all commercial gun sales, including those at gun shows and online. That bill fell to a Senate filibuster in 2013.

The White House made clear that the Barr proposal — which senators described as an “ideas list” or a work in progress — has not yet received Mr. Trump’s blessing, further underscoring the degree to which bipartisan talks around gun safety could fail. Mr. Barr, speaking to reporters in the Capitol, also played it down, saying he was “just kicking around some ideas” to see what could gain traction in the Senate.

Mr. Trump, for his part, took to Twitter on Wednesday in what appeared to be a proactive effort to lay blame on Democrats should the bipartisan talks fail. He singled out Beto O’Rourke of Texas, a former congressman and current 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, who has proposed a mandatory government program to buy back assault weapons — an idea that makes even some Democrats skittish.

“Dummy Beto made it much harder to make a deal,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Convinced many that Dems just want to take your guns away. Will continue forward!”

On Wednesday evening, Mr. Barr sat down with three of the Senate’s strongest advocates of expanded background checks: Senators Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, and the sponsors of the Manchin-Toomey bill, Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, and Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania.

“There’s no question, the heart of the attorney general’s idea is a mechanism for expanding background checks beyond what we have today,” Mr. Toomey said, adding, “I have colleagues who are open to that so I’m modestly encouraged.”

Mr. Manchin also sounded upbeat: “I personally think the president wants to do something. We would not be this engaged for this long a period of time if he didn’t.”

Mr. Murphy, though, was cautious: “Just finished meeting w Attorney General Barr w @SenToomey and @Sen_JoeManchin,” he wrote on Twitter. “It was a really good discussion. But the fact remains that there is no good deal that the gun lobby will support. Now, the White House has a choice to make.”

But Republicans who favor gun rights said they wanted more specifics, and several said it was pointless to even talk about Mr. Barr’s plan at this point. As the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, the attorney general will be a central figure in the debate over gun legislation, but senators agree that the president will have the final say.

“My question was: ‘Where is the president on this?’ And I asked this question directly: ‘Is this something the president supports?’ And they didn’t have an answer for that,” said Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, who met with Mr. Barr on Tuesday evening. “That’s an important piece. If the president doesn’t support it, then there’s no point.”

And Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who also met with Mr. Barr on Tuesday evening, warned against any legislation that “raised the specter of confiscation” and said he was not interested in a bill that would “restrict the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”

Mr. Cruz is pushing an alternative bill — the so-called lie and try measure, which would make it easier for law enforcement to prosecute people who lie on background checks. That idea is also included in the proposal that Mr. Barr has circulated.

The issue of gun violence has burst onto the Washington agenda after a string of mass shootings that terrorized the nation over the summer. Democrats have been demanding that the president embrace a House-passed bill expanding background checks to cover even private gun sales. But that idea is a nonstarter in a Senate controlled by Republicans, as even Mr. Murphy concedes.

“I wish they would endorse H.R. 8, but that’s not going to happen,” he said, referring to the House bill, adding, “so this is an iterative process.”

Unlike the House bill, the Manchin-Toomey bill would cover only commercial sales, meaning that sales between friends and family members would be exempted. Only two Republicans who voted in favor of it in 2013 — Mr. Toomey and Senator Susan Collins of Maine — remain in the Senate.

And while some Republican newcomers, notably Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, have said they are inclined to support it, the measure draws opposition from many, like Mr. Hawley, who are concerned that it would lead to a federal registry of gun owners, which gun rights advocates strongly oppose.

The proposal being circulated by Mr. Barr, first reported by The Daily Caller, calls for a “newly created class of licensed transfer agents” who would not sell guns, but would be authorized by the government to conduct background checks. Mr. Toomey described it as “a different mechanism” from the Manchin-Toomey bill.

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