A record 87,154 members, hunters, and gun owners attended this year’s National Rifle Association annual meeting in early May, and for the first time ever, the U.S. president and the vice president addressed the attendees in the same afternoon. It was a potent show of political force from the organization, after it had endured a hurricane of critical media coverage following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
“The National Rifle Association is the only organization in America that gets blamed for crimes our members don’t commit,” said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, its political and lobbying arm, to a crowd of roughly 10,000 attendees. “The 5 million law-abiding men and women of the NRA will not accept one shred of blame for the acts of madmen and the failures of government.”
The NRA stuck its neck out to help Donald Trump in 2016 when a lot of other right-leaning groups, such as the Koch network, stayed on the sidelines, and the Trump presidency has brought the group some considerable wins. Despite an enormous media push for gun control after the Las Vegas and Parkland shootings, the administration and Congress have made no real move beyond two proposals that the NRA supported: an administrative rule banning bump stocks, and the Fix NICS Act, a law strengthening the background-check system. And the NRA’s fundraising is up.
Most notably, Trump nominated Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch and a slew of other new federal judges who are expected to have a friendly perspective on the Second Amendment. The importance of Gorsuch can’t be overstated, says one conservative campaign consultant who has worked with the NRA in the past. “Everything the NRA did [to elect Trump] is worth it, even if Gorsuch was the only thing they ever got from him. It can be argued that the Heller and McDonald decisions are the most important Second Amendment cases ever, and Hillary Clinton effectively said she would undo them. Getting a conservative justice here will be important for a long time.”
Also, after just two months in office, Trump and the GOP Congress rescinded a controversial regulation enacted at the end of the Obama presidency. The rule required the Social Security Administration to report to the attorney general individuals receiving certain kinds of mental-health disability benefits, so that this information could be used in background checks. The American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the NRA and other gun-rights groups, argued that there were no data indicating that individuals collecting those kinds of benefits have a propensity for violence in general or gun violence in particular.
Legislative changes, by contrast, have been slow and intermittent.
Start with the NRA’s top priority in Congress, concealed-carry reciprocity. There are currently more than 16 million holders of concealed-carry permits in the United States, up more than 250 percent since 2007. Many states recognize permits from other states, but such recognition is not universal — meaning that gun owners can unwittingly stumble into serious criminal charges, as in the highly publicized case of Shaneen Allen, a single mother of two who had a valid
concealed-carry permit in Pennsylvania. Pulled over for an unsafe lane change while driving to Atlantic City, N.J., Allen was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of hollow-point bullets, and faced a minimum three-year prison term — all for bringing a legally owned gun and ammunition across a state line. She was ultimately pardoned by New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
The federal reciprocity proposal would make gun permits, like driver’s licenses, valid across state lines. If your home state trusted you to carry a concealed weapon, every other state would be required by law to trust you as well. In 2013, 57 senators — 44 Republicans and 13 Democrats — voted for the idea.
In December, the House of Representatives passed its version of reciprocity, but the Senate has yet to consider it, and no one knows when or whether the Senate will. Democrats are expected to filibuster, meaning reciprocity supporters would need 60 votes. After the Alabama special election and with Senator John McCain often out of Washington being treated for cancer, a unified GOP caucus would need nine or ten Democratic votes in the Senate.
“It’s the strongest reciprocity bill ever to get through the House,” says one consultant who’s worked with the legislation’s lead sponsor, North Carolina representative Richard Hudson. “The Senate needs to act while Republicans have the majority and a chance. . . . You have to advance your policy aims on the floor when you control the floor. The House did that.”
But it’s not too hard to guess how Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer would direct his caucus to vote if reciprocity came to the floor: Assuming McCain’s absence, precisely eight vulnerable red-state Senate Democrats would be cleared to vote “yes.” These Democrats could use the vote in campaign ads to emphasize how they’re different from the rest of their party — and the measure would fall two votes short, ensuring that no Democrat who opposed the measure could be labeled “the deciding vote” in campaign ads.
Adding to the NRA’s difficulties is that Trump’s rhetoric on guns has been a high-stakes roulette wheel. In a February White House meeting with congressional lawmakers, Trump careened off the tracks, endorsing raising the age to purchase a firearm to 21, appearing to endorse Senator Dianne Feinstein’s assault-weapons ban, scoffing that most senators are afraid of the NRA, telling House majority whip Steve Scalise — a shooting survivor! — that concealed-carry reciprocity will “never” get passed, and telling Vice President Mike Pence during a discussion of restraining orders that could permit gun seizures, “Take the guns first, go through due process second.”
That last comment was the sort of rhetoric that, if spoken by President Obama, could have set off furious protests. But it’s rather revealing that few gun owners thought Trump would actually follow through on his suddenly pro-gun-control comments; Washington is starting to get used to the president’s unpredictability and rapid reversals.
When Trump goes wrong, he goes really wrong. But when Trump is on, he’s on, and he’s embraced arguments about gun rights and the virtues of an armed populace that many other Republican lawmakers are hesitant to endorse.
“In terms of rhetoric, there’s nobody who’s been better than Trump on this stuff,” says John Lott, a gun-policy researcher and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center. “Coming out and talking about arming teachers — could you imagine [George W.] Bush doing something like that? Trump is at least talking about something that would matter, that’s related to these attacks, like the danger of gun-free zones.” It’s easy to forget that George W. Bush expressed support for extending the assault-weapons ban in 2003 before it expired the following year — and never addressed an NRA convention.
Legislative battles at the state level haven’t been easy for the NRA this year, either. After the Parkland shooting, Republican Florida governor Rick Scott, now running for Senate against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, signed a bill raising the state’s age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21. The NRA filed suit against the ban in federal court, contending that it “totally eviscerates the right of law-abiding adults between the ages of 18 and 21 to keep and bear arms.” Scott attended the 2017 NRA convention but canceled plans to attend this year’s. It’s unclear whether the NRA will support Scott in his Senate bid or if so how enthusiastically. In 2014, the NRA rated Scott “A+” and endorsed him; in 2012, the NRA rated Nelson an “F.”
Scott may find himself in a situation similar to that of Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey, an NRA favorite until he sponsored a background-check bill with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. In 2016, the NRA declined to endorse Toomey and downgraded him to a “C.” But his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, earned an “F.”
In Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin mildly surprised and disappointed the NRA in mid May when she decided to veto a “constitutional carry” proposal, which would have made it legal to carry a gun without a permit. Cox noted that Fallin had supported constitutional carry when she ran for reelection in 2014 and pledged, “Make no mistake, this temporary setback will be rectified when Oklahoma residents elect a new and genuinely pro−Second Amendment governor.”
“I was surprised by it; she could have signed it and it wouldn’t have caused any political fallout,” sighs the GOP consultant who worked with Hudson. “Second-term governors do unusual things.”
Elsewhere, many states are considering or have passed legislation to create or expand “red flag” laws allowing the seizure of a person’s firearms if a judge determines him to be a threat to himself or others. The NRA announced in March that it supports the concept but is wary about the way these laws are written in many states. The organization contends that one proposal passed by the Illinois house and senate in May would allow gun seizures “based on third party allegations with little, if any, real evidence and limited ‘due process’ for the respondent. Hearings for the orders would be ex parte, where the respondent is not present to challenge the accuser and defend against allegations made against them.”
With the outlook for continued GOP control of the House cloudy, a narrow window of opportunity for pro-gun legislation may be closing. And if the midterms live up to the “blue wave” hype, the NRA may spend much of the next cycle on defense. In 2017, Republicans were shellacked in Virginia’s state legislative races, and Lott calculates that if they “had lost one seat more, [Democrats] would have gotten a lot of different types of gun-control legislation through.”
He thinks he and his allies could be extremely busy starting next January. “Wherever Democrats win in 2018, the first bills out of the gate will be gun-control bills.”