Trump Embraces the NRA, Abandoning Flirtation With Gun Control

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump delivered a strong message of support for the National Rifle Association at its annual meeting on Friday, as gun-rights advocates regroup in the wake of the mass shooting at a Florida high school.

Trump’s address in Dallas was his fourth in a row to the group’s annual convention. The NRA spent $30 million in support of Trump’s 2016 campaign, lending him credibility with some conservatives.

“You give your time, your energy, your vote and your voice to stand strong for those sacred rights given to us by God, including the right to self-defense,” Trump told the group’s members. “And now thanks to your activism and dedication you have an administration fighting to protect your Second Amendment.”

But the Parkland, Florida shooting, which left 17 high school students and school employees dead and galvanized gun-control advocates, led Trump to consider supporting firearms restrictions the NRA has long opposed, including expanded background checks.

That flirtation didn’t last long. Under pressure from the NRA’s leaders and its allies in Congress and within the White House, he fell back in line and hasn’t taken on the gun group. He pivoted from weighing limits on gun sales to encouraging teachers to arm themselves -- a position enthusiastically backed by the NRA.

“Safety is a big priority, security is a big priority for the administration, but we also support the Second Amendment and strongly support it and don’t see there to be a problem with speaking at the National Rifle Association’s meeting,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said this week.

Gun stocks rose sharply as Trump addressed the meeting, hitting session highs.
Sturm Ruger & Company Inc. was up 3.1 percent and American Outdoor Brands Corp. up 1.9
percent at 3:03 p.m. New York time.

Mixed Messages

In the immediate aftermath of Parkland, Trump hosted a handful of televised meetings with survivors of the shooting, victims’ families, local officials and members of Congress. He offered a range of ideas during those sessions -- including arming teachers who volunteer to carry guns in schools, something the NRA supports.

But he also suggested support for policies the NRA opposes, including raising the minimum age to 21 for some gun purchases and expanding background checks beyond the parameters endorsed by the NRA. He also mused about taking guns away from anyone considered dangerous without waiting for a court order.

“Take the guns first, go through due process second,” he said at a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers two weeks after Parkland.

At the same meeting he also charged that the NRA had more sway over Congress than him.

“They have great power over you people,” he told the lawmakers. “They have less power over me.”

Cox Meeting

Just a few days later, though, he met with the NRA’s top lobbyist, Chris Cox, and Vice President Mike Pence at the White House. Since then, he and his aides have been strident in their support of the NRA and the Second Amendment.

“We all want safe schools, mental health reform and to keep guns away from dangerous people,” Cox tweeted after the meeting. “POTUS & VPOTUS support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don’t want gun control.”

After retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens published a New York Times op-ed in late March proposing the repeal of the Second Amendment, Trump tweeted: “THE SECOND AMENDMENT WILL NEVER BE REPEALED!”

The NRA’s relationship with the president was further complicated after a McClatchy report in January that U.S. authorities are investigating whether the group funneled Russian money into the 2016 presidential election.

The NRA said it received $2,512 from people with Russian addresses between 2015 and April 2018, according to a letter sent to Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon in April. Wyden, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, sought details about the NRA’s relationship with Russia and plans to refer his correspondence with an NRA attorney to the Federal Election Commission.

Bump Stocks Ban

In late March, the Justice Department issued a proposal to ban bump stocks, a firearms accessory which increases the rate of fire of semi-automatic rifles. The device was linked to last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest in modern American history. It’s the only concrete move the administration has taken that is not fully aligned with the NRA, which has supported some bump-stock regulation but not a ban.

The Fix NICS Act, a modest strengthening of the existing federal background check system that wasn’t opposed by the NRA, was included in a government spending bill Trump signed in March.

But Trump has otherwise ignored students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the Parkland shooting, who initiated a nationwide protest movement demanding tougher gun laws and accountability from lawmakers.

Many companies broke ties with the NRA after its leaders publicly criticized and ridiculed the Parkland student-activists, including Delta Air Lines Inc., Hertz Corp. and LifeLock Inc. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Washington and other cities for the March for Our Lives on March 24, organized by the Parkland students and allied gun-control groups.

Trump went to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for the weekend and didn’t address the march. A deputy White House press secretary, Lindsay Walters, said in a statement that “we applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today.”

Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, which operates Bloomberg News, serves as a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s advisory board and is a donor to the group. Everytown for Gun Safety advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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