White House focuses on death penalty

The Trump administration is preparing a package of legislative measures responding to a spate of recent mass shootings, aides said Monday, even as White House and congressional staffs remain far apart on the best path forward.

The package will include legislation that would expedite the death penalty for people found guilty of mass killings, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff told reporters.

But it’s unlikely to include new provisions expanding background checks on gun sales after President Donald Trump backed off support for such steps following outcry from the National Rifle Association and warnings about the political consequences.

The issue assumed new attention following another shooting over the weekend in West Texas, which killed seven people and wounded almost two dozen others. Trump told reporters afterward that the latest massacre — one in a string of deadly episodes this summer — was unlikely to change the calculus in Washington.

“This really hasn’t changed anything, we’re doing a package,” he said. “That’s irrespective of what happened yesterday in Texas.”

White House and Senate staff continue to discuss gun control measures, an administration official said following Saturday’s shooting, but consensus hasn’t been reached on areas to move forward. The official described the talks — which have including both Republican and Democratic aides — as productive, and said all sides seem clear that something should get done when Congress returns later this month.

White House aides have said Trump instructed them to come up with something that can pass both chambers. But even though all sides appear focused on getting something done, they remain far apart on substance, officials said.

Democrats continue to insist any new gun control push must include expanding background checks, a step long opposed by gun rights groups. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a large background check package in February, but it hasn’t been taken up in the Senate and Trump threatened to veto it.

Trump initially appeared open to expanding background checks following shooting sprees in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, at the beginning of August. But after pressure from the NRA and warnings he could face dire political consequences, he backed off. It mirrored earlier forays when Trump voiced support for expanding background checks, only to back down after pressure from his political allies.

Still, Trump and fellow Republicans appear to acknowledge that failing to take action would be equally politically damaging as mass shootings continue to plague communities across the country.

There are still active opponents of any serious gun reform within the White House, even though the President himself has asked to be presented with solutions, according to officials. Some senior aides warned Trump after the last two shootings that anything he does on gun control won’t be enough to placate his critics, and could instead cost him among supporters.

For now, the administration is focusing on the death penalty provision, which Attorney General William Barr previewed during a speech in August.

Legislation that allows for the “imposition of any death sentence without undue delay” in cases of mass murders, as well as slayings of police officers, will be proposed after Labor Day when lawmakers return from recess, Barr told a national law enforcement gathering in New Orleans.

“Punishment must be swift and certain,” he said.

Speaking to reporters as Pence was flying to Ireland, chief of staff Marc Short said the vice president’s policy team was engaged in discussions on gun control, and said the Justice Department had drafted the death penalty measure as part of a package of gun control measures the White House could propose to Congress.

Other potential steps include so-called red flag laws, which seek to prevent mentally ill people from getting guns. Democrats and Republicans have expressed support for such steps, though Democrats say they do not go far enough.

On Sunday, Trump steered clear of calling for specific stronger gun control measures, including background checks, in the wake of Saturday’s mass shooting.

“We have a lot of groups working on it,” Trump said. “I’ve been speaking to a lot of senators, a lot of house members … People want to do something.”

He downplayed the notion that stronger background checks may have prevented the long string of recent gun attacks.

“As strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it,” he said.

Aside from a select number of Republicans, expanding background checks hasn’t gained widespread support from GOP lawmakers. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who supports improving background checks, told ABC on Sunday he’s been in regular contact with Trump and he believes the President wants to do something “meaningful.”

But Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” that he is focused on “red flag” laws, which were passed in his state following a high school shooting in Parkland.

Scott also said an assault weapons ban is a nonstarter in this Congress, a view Trump shares.