Susan Collins and the GOP court Trump on guns

Sen. Susan Collins

“We’re determined that we take something up,” Sen. Susan Collins said. “Plus, the White House this time is it at least open to something.” | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

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Senate Republicans are increasingly open to legislation to stop mass shootings — if the president can rally the party behind it.

LINCOLN, Maine — Susan Collins has watched countless gun debates stall out over the years. But this time, she says, will be different.

The Maine moderate has long been a lonely voice on guns in the GOP. She’s one of just two Republicans left in the Senate who previously supported a bipartisan background checks bill and the only Republican serving who backed an assault weapons ban. Every time she’s gotten close to winning even modest new gun regulations, the effort collapses due to conservative opposition.

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But with President Donald Trump talking up new gun regulations, Collins is increasingly optimistic and has assumed a central role in the burgeoning effort to find a consensus among Republicans. She’s spoken to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and White House legislative director Eric Ueland about potential gun safety reforms and plans to talk to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this week.

“The proximity of the shootings, the Gilroy one … and then El Paso and Dayton, that has galvanized people,” Collins said in an interview as she crossed the state during a sparkling Maine summer day. “We’re determined that we take something up. Plus, the White House this time is it at least open to something.”

The wave of mass shootings coupled with Trump’s apparent interest presents perhaps the best opportunity Congress has had in years to try to curb gun violence. A series of interviews with GOP senators showed new openness to legislative action to halt the bloodshed, underscoring how malleable the Republican Party is under Trump — even on what has historically been a core issue for conservatives.

Collins proposed to Ueland a three-part package: Tweaking the background checks bill sponsored by Toomey and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to gain GOP support, passing a “red flag” law that allows temporary removal of guns from people deemed imminent threats, and cracking down on straw gun purchases.

And while Trump has made no specific commitment on legislation, his warm rhetoric toward new gun legislation could be a gamechanger.

“The president is key on this,” Collins said. “He does seem to be calling for some sort of background check tightening and also some sort of red flag bill. Now obviously the details matter a great deal but if he advocates those two positions that will help us with members of the Republican Caucus.”

Members of the Democratic Caucus, including Maine’s other senator, are skeptical.

“In the past he’s said things like this, and then we get up to the edge and it doesn’t happen,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).

There are many reasons to bet against the GOP-controlled Senate actually passing any new firearm regulations.

Some Republicans already oppose the red flag proposal. Past attempts to move modest bills often become bogged down. Collins’ “no fly, no buy” bill to bar people on a terrorism watch list from buying firearms failed in 2016 and a bill to simply improve background check reporting requirements took months to become law in 2018.

Additionally, the Senate won’t return until Sept. 9, just a few weeks before a government funding deadline that could complicate scheduling a gun debate. The shootings will also be more than a month in the past, potentially dimming public pressure. And of course, horrific shootings at schools in Parkland, Fla., and Newtown, Conn. couldn’t move Congress to significantly strengthen gun laws.

But there is evidence that Republicans are following Trump’s lead in eyeing the possibility of action.

McConnell told a Kentucky radio show last week that red flag and background check legislation will be “front and center” in the discussions surrounding gun action after the August recess. Meanwhile, Toomey is reaching out to newer senators, and it seems to be paying off.

“My gut tells me that Leader McConnell wants to bring something to the floor for a vote,” said freshman Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who spoke to Toomey and wants to focus on background checks and red flag laws. “This is the moment. When you have two incidents like that in the same weekend, I think conservatives and Republicans lose in the long run if we don’t do something to change the dynamic. And I’m about as hard a Second Amendment guy as there is.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said in a statement that he supports “enhancing existing background checks” that preserve Second Amendment protections. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) has said she would consider new gun legislation and wants to make domestic terrorism a federal crime. Michigan Republican Senate candidate John James described expanding background checks in an interview as among the “reasonable things to consider.”

“There’s an opportunity,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is more supportive of taking on red flags and straw purchases than background checks.

“It will require becoming a priority for the White House,” Rubio added in an interview. “It’s tough to move on an issue as difficult and divisive as this is without executive engagement.”

Yet one must look no further than Maine to see the challenges ahead. A 2016 referendum similar to the House-passed backgrounds checks bill failed, and the state legislature rejected a broad “red flag” law this year, settling instead for a narrower law focusing on mental health.

Collins voted for the assault weapons ban previously but said studies show it made little difference in preventing shootings.

“I don’t think an assault weapon ban is going anywhere,” Collins said. “I want to get something done that makes a difference”

And while the Pine Tree State may be getting more Democratic, hunting and gun ownership is a way of life for many Mainers. David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, described the state as “moderate to conservative” on gun rights.

“There are a lot of Democrats that are still pro-gun,” he said. “We have a high ownership of firearms and we are the safest state to live in when it comes to violent crime.”

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine.), one of just two House Democrats to oppose the new majority’s universal background checks bill, said background checks wouldn’t have prevented the El Paso and Dayton shooters from obtaining guns.

“The issue is much greater than background checks,” Golden said.

Golden and Collins both oppose the House-passed bill because they deem the exemptions for gun transfers to family and friends too narrow. Collins’ likely Democratic opponent in next year’s Senate race, state House Speaker Sara Gideon, said she supports it, along with an assault weapons ban, putting real daylight between them.

In an interview, Gideon acknowledged her disappointment with failing to pass a red flag bill in Maine but said the onus is now on the Senate — and Collins — to pass a federal law.

In Maine, “we have more work to do. But Susan Collins has been in the Senate for 22 years and seen mass shooting after mass shooting and thousands upon thousands of people dying. And a similar red flag bill that’s passed states has not made it through the United States Senate,” Gideon said.

Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for the Collins campaign, responded that “in Maine, we have a Democratic governor and Democratic legislature. But as speaker, Sara Gideon was unable to pass even a single one of the gun proposals she supports.”

While GOP senators view background checks as a heavy lift, passing a red flag law won’t be easy either.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) will oppose red flag laws and expanding background checks, according to an aide, and he’s not alone. That could be a problem considering McConnell’s longstanding reluctance to hold votes that divide his conference

“I have not seen one that I would support at this point,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) of red flag proposals.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who’s facing a tough reelection bid, supports the concept of red flag laws, but “wants to see strong due process protection,” his spokesman said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has argued any consideration of red flag laws should include a vote on the House-passed universal background checks bill. With Collins’ opposition to that bill, it has no chance in the Senate.

“The issue to me is whether the Democrats really want to make progress on this issue or whether Chuck Schumer wants to use it for political purposes,” Collins said.

Schumer is eager to oust Collins, and the four-term senator is taking a risk by re-engaging in the gun debate. Many in the state don’t want any action on guns and she admits Maine is “very divided.”

But she says it’s worth the risk of conservative blowback. And she hopes her Republican colleagues agree.

“These three [shootings] being so close together have really penetrated the consciousness and a real call to action,” she said. “This isn’t going away.”

James Arkin contributed to this report.

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