WASHINGTON — In responding to the biggest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, President Trump assumed a role that was all too familiar for former president Barack Obama — consoling a shaken nation after a deadly shooting.
Like Obama, Trump is likely to confront more mass shootings, testing his leadership skills and capacity to empathize. Unlike Obama — a strong advocate of tighter restrictions on gun ownership — Trump is left with few policy solutions.
"In times such as these, I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness. The answers do not come easy," Trump said in a Monday statement at the White House.
Trump condemned Sunday’s Las Vegas slaughter of 58 people by 64-year-old Stephen Paddock as “an act of pure evil," called for national unity, led a moment of silence and ordered U.S. flags lowered to half-staff. But he made no mention of an epidemic of gun violence making the U.S. unique among advanced industrial nations.
While Trump once supported a ban on assault weapons, his views have changed significantly over the past decade, and it's unlikely he'd support stricter U.S. gun laws now. In the first weeks of his administration, he approved a controversial bill to reverse an Obama-era ban on gun ownership by people ruled mentally "defective" by the Social Security system.
Unlike many challenges facing the Trump administration, Trump's offerings to the American public in the wake of mass shootings are likely to be limited to words of sorrow and "warmest condolences," which was his initial response, said professor Robert Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control.
Guns are "the only policy area where the conditioned response is that the law doesn't matter, it's bad people doing bad things," said Spitzer. "That leads to a policy dead end."
Further, the National Rifle Association was the first major, deep-pocketed industry group to endorse Trump as a GOP candidate. "The NRA has doubled down with Trump, who was a long shot back when they first endorsed him," said Spitzer. "Turns out they placed a bet on the winner" and "he’s really thrown his chips with them," he said.
Like Trump, Obama's response to the first mass shooting under his leadership — at Fort Hood in 2009 — was focused mainly on those grieving. Yet his two terms included at least 14 public responses to mass shootings, and over time and with the number of incidents compounding, Obama's frustration with the relative ease with which Americans can purchase high-capacity firearms became pronounced.
That was particularly true after the 2012 slaughter of 20 children in Newtown, Conn. After that tragedy, Obama repeatedly called for tighter laws, including requiring background checks for online purchase of guns and closing the so-called "gun show loophole" that allows sales between private individuals without a background check.
In a Monday White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump remains a strong supporter of the Second Amendment while dismissing questions about policy: "There’s a time and place for a political debate, but now is a time to unite as a country," she said. "It would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don’t fully know all the facts," said Sanders.
Mike Hammond, legislative counsel to the pro-gun Gun Owners of America, said trying to change gun laws in response to the tragedy is “nothing but a political ploy.”
While it's unknown exactly what type of a weapon Paddock used, it appears to have been an automatic firearm, which federal laws tightly restrict. “Given it’s illegal to have the gun he had, illegal to have it in the hotel and certainly illegal to kill 58 people, it’s not clear what sort of new illegalization is going to make any difference,” Hammond said. Even so, the state of Nevada allows the private purchase of some machine guns.
If Trump offers any remedy, based on previous remarks, it may be to suggest more guns. After a mass shooting at an Oregon community college in 2015, Trump said that fewer people would have died if more of the victims had their own guns. He made the same argument after Orlando, saying it would have minimized the death count if others “had guns strapped to their waists or strapped to their ankle.” After two journalists were shot to death on live television, Trump said "this isn't a gun problem, this is a mental problem."
Trump has changed his position on access to guns over time. In a 2000 book, he said Republicans “refuse even limited restrictions,” saying they “walk the NRA line.” He expressed support for the assault weapons ban and longer waiting periods to purchase guns.
More than a decade later, Trump began to argue that gun background checks “accomplished very little” and declared himself “a very big Second Amendment person.” In a 2015 interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Trump said mass shootings are a fact of life.
"It's the same old story. But what are you going to do? There are many people like that and what are you going to do? Institutionalize everybody? So you're going to have difficulties," he said.
The president's attitude shift corresponds with a cultural shift in the entire Republican Party.
In 1994, Congress approved a 10-year ban on 19 types of military-style assault weapons, including with the votes of many Republicans, like former Indiana senator Dan Coats, now Trump's director of national intelligence. Former president Ronald Reagan also supported the ban, writing a joint letter with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1994 for Congress to heed the pleas of the law enforcement community.
Yet, in the ensuing decades, the NRA and gun manufacturers have made opposition to the assault weapons ban a litmus test for Republicans running for office. The NRA has argued that any changes to U.S. gun laws will create a slippery slope to law-abiding owners losing their rights.
The volume of U.S. mass shootings corresponds with a shift towards high-capacity firearms — originally conceived for use on the battlefield — marketed by gun manufacturers. In 1980, semi-automatic pistols accounted for only 32% of the handguns produced in America. By 1991, this proportion had jumped to 74%, according to the Violence Policy Center.
In the meantime, with Republicans in control of both Congress and the White House, federal laws appear to be moving in the direction of looser regulation. For instance, House Republicans are on track to advance legislation easing firearms rules, including a package of bills backed by the NRA that would make it easier to purchase silencers.
Manny Gomez, a retired FBI agent, said the nation's laws are moving inversely to increasing gun violence.
"Are we going to legalize grenades next?" said Gomez. "It seems to me we're heading in the wrong direction," he said.