Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on the debate over guns after the massacre in Uvalde

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter join William Brangham to discuss the latest political news, including the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, Washington’s familiar debate over guns, and former President Trump’s influence.

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  • William Brangham:

    While Uvalde, Texas, grieves, Washington is returning to its familiar debate over guns and whether anything can be done in Congress that could prevent mass shootings.

    Joining me to address what can and cannot be done in this moment are Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report With Amy Walter and Tamara Keith of NPR.

    Great to have you both here on Memorial Day. Thanks for being here.

    Tam, to you first.

    President Biden was in Uvalde yesterday. And he heard from many residents who said, please do something. What does the president have the ability to do with regards to gun control?

  • Tamara Keith, National Public Radio:

    Well, with regards to his executive powers, the power of the president to issue an executive order, the president has emphasized the limits of that power.

    Even just today, he said that he can't ban certain guns and he can't expand background checks with his pen. And that is true. And there are some in the gun safety community who have praised what he has done so far. In fact, President Biden has done a lot through executive action throughout his administration on guns.

    I spoke to a top White House official about this late last week, who said that they have not been waiting for a mass shooting to happen to take these actions. But this person argued that their options are now limited because of that.

    However, there are people in the gun safety community who are saying, actually, there's a lot that the president could still do, there's a lot more executive action that could happen, including issuing an executive order that would call for the Justice Department to define what it means to be engaged in the business of selling guns, which could potentially expand the number of gun sellers required to perform background checks in order to sell those weapons.

  • William Brangham:

    Right, because, right now, if you're not a federally licensed dealer, you're not obligated to run those checks.

    Amy, Senator Chris Murphy, who we all remember seeing imploring his Senate colleagues to engage on this issue after this last massacre, is now having these meetings with GOP senators, and has been suggesting that there might be some progress there.

    Is it your sense that this massacre moved enough Republican senators to actually act now?

  • Amy Walter, The Cook Political Report:

    Even Senator Murphy I think said at one point: I have been Charlie with the football many times on this issue.

    So he is coming into it with a certain degree of skepticism that something is able to get 10 Republican votes. Part of the challenge we have right now is that this debate is, like so many things in our politics, it's all or none.

    There are certainly — when you look at the data, the polling data, most Americans are somewhere in the middle and accept all kinds of compromises. But we don't have compromise as an incentive in Washington anymore.

    And when I look back to the last time we really got gun legislation done, it wasn't just that you had Republicans supporting something. You also had Democrats voting against it. So, in 1994, you had 46 Republicans voting for the assault weapons ban, and 64 Democrats voting against it, which shows…

  • William Brangham:

    Unthinkable today.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right, unthinkable, which shows also the importance of diversity of the caucuses, that Democrats had a lot of rural members, Republicans had a lot of suburban members. That's how you get bipartisan compromise, because each one of these groups had members where their constituencies were strong enough to push them to do one thing or the other.

    Now the two parties are just homogeneous. One side is almost entirely rural and small town. The other party, Democrats, of course, are more suburban and urban. And so, on this issue, there is no one within those parties that can bring sort of a compromise possibility to the table.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, it's the literal definition of polarization that you're describing.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes. Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Tam, Senator Murphy has said that, if these talks with Republican senators doesn't pan out, that the Democrats would put forward a bill of the reforms that they would like to see done just to get a vote and get everybody on the record.

    Politically speaking, what is the utility of that? Does that really help, to have a symbolic vote?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, as Amy said, a number of these measures have widespread support, have overwhelming support among the American public, something like expanding background checks or keeping guns out of…

  • William Brangham:

    Raising the limit — the age limit.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes, an age limit, moving the age limit to 21 for all types of weapons, preventing people involved in domestic violence from obtaining weapons.

    There are a number of measures that are widely supported that Democrats see value in getting on the record. Now, Chris Murphy is someone who is arguing that Democrats need to not be afraid of this issue, that they need to campaign on it. He argues that, in 2018, they did campaign on this issue, and they did pretty well in 2018.

    Now, I don't know if there actually is a causal relationship there, as he says there is. But there is sort of a divide among Democrats about whether you embrace gun safety as an issue or whether you hide from it.

    I will say that numerous people have told me that the difference between now, this terrible mass shooting, and Sandy Hook is that, since then, a huge lobby, a huge advocacy army has built up of people who want gun safety measures that simply didn't exist in an organized fashion before that. It is the gun safety response to the NRA, and it's much more organized than it was in the past.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to shift across the country now to Wyoming.

    We saw President Trump out in Wyoming recently coming off a pretty bad defeat of his election denier candidates in Georgia. Two of them went down quite seriously.

    President Trump is now out in Wyoming stumping for anyone who will take down Liz Cheney, his other bete noire.

    Does the president's defeat in Georgia lessen the impact of his endorsement and his stamp of approval?

  • Amy Walter:

    So, I think we have to judge this on all kinds of different measures.

    On the one hand, of the Republicans who voted to impeach the president — there are 10 of them — Liz Cheney is one of them. She has a very, very tough road to come back to Washington. This is the most Republican state, gave Donald Trump his biggest margin in the 2020 election.

    But those folks, many of them aren't coming back because they decided to retire, likely seeing the writing on the wall, they wouldn't win a primary, or they're going to lose their primaries. So he's going to basically have been responsible for purging a good 60, 70 percent or more of the people who voted to impeach him out of Congress. On that measure, it's a success.

    However, what we're also seeing, like we saw in Georgia, is that just giving somebody your endorsement and asking that endorsement to play the role, basically, of retribution for his own loss, right? It was all about him and how he was wronged by these candidates. That's not really going very far.

    And I think what other Republicans who are looking at 2024 see with this is, maybe this is an opportunity to go after Donald Trump. He's spending so much time thinking about the past, not the future. There are plenty of Republicans now who are watching these wins and losses and saying, hmm, maybe he's not so invincible in '24 if he runs.

  • William Brangham:

    Tam, just very quickly to you.

    Do you think that Donald Trump is still equally as sought out as a — as someone to bring — stump for my campaign please, Mr. Former President?

  • Tamara Keith:

    He still carries a lot of weight with his base.

    Just look at how many people showed up in Wyoming for that rally, including people who drove from all over the country to see him, pretty much.

  • William Brangham:

    Tamara Keith, Amy Walter, thank you both so much.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

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