By Senior Campaign Agent Megan Field
Sporadic and careless comments are a hallmark of Trump’s Presidency, but to U- Turn on an issue as emotive and profitable as gun control is a move no one could have predicted. On Wednesday, in a televised cross party meeting following the Parkland shooting, the President outlined an agenda which had Democrats jumping for joy. To the President’s left sat Democrat of California, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a long time advocate of gun control, who could not contain her smile. His proposals were at odds with previous comments, the views of many in his party and, most importantly, the views of the NRA.
Trump has a mixed history on gun control; in 1999 he told CNN’s Larry King- “There’s nothing I like better than that nobody has them, but that’s not going to happen”. Whether out of necessity or a genuine change of principles, by 2016 comments such as the above were a thing of the past. Gun owners had a tendency to embody the blue collar cloth which held his base together. Trump’s campaign capitalised on emotion, and gun control was an issue with emotive appeal similar to that of immigration. When the National Rifle Association declared their support for him in May of 2016, the stance was solidified. Even following the Parkland Shooting, his only suggestion was to arm teachers with concealed guns. However, on Wednesday- the tables appeared to turn.
“It would be so beautiful to have one bill that everybody can support”, he said to lawmakers. In this so called “beautiful bill” there would be tighter restrictions on sales to young adults, possibly raising the minimum age for buying rifles from 18 to 21. Moreover, he highlighted that background checks should be expanded for all weapon purchases, including guns shows and online. There was some light for conservatives as the President upheld his commitment to to arming teachers and ending gun free zones around schools. But this was all but outweighed by the suggestion that police should have the power to seize guns from anyone deemed dangerous, without a court’s approval. He insisted that waiting for a court to act when an individual poses a threat is too risky.
Trump’s proclamation that he “likes taking the gun’s early” and going to court after, struck a chord with conservatives, who fear a disregard for the concept of “due process”. Embodied in the fifth and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution, this is the provision that no one should be deprived of life, liberty or property without first undergoing fair legal procedures. The prospect of government seizing weapons from law abiding citizens is a source of intense distress for many gun rights advocates. The NRA bumper- sticker slogan “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands” makes this quite clear.
Significantly, these comments highlighted a rare divide between Trump and his Vice President Mike Pence. The social conservative, with an “A” voting record from the NRA, made every effort to prevent his superior from upsetting gun rights groups, imploring that they should “Allow due process so that no one’s rights are trampled”. Unfortunately, he did not succeed and critics were quick to voice their opposition. Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, derided the President for being inconsistent; “Strong leaders don’t automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them,” Sasse said. “We’re not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the President talked to today doesn’t like them.” Sentiments such as these suggest Trump’s comments will be inconsequential, and many will be inclined to agree.
The most important party to these comments will be the NRA, who contributed $30m to the President’s campaign in 2016. Ironically, Trump tried to downplay the power the organisation holds over him, mocking fellow law makers. The NRA “has great power over you people”, he insisted, but “less power over me.” In this way, he accused Senator Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania Republican) of being “afraid of the NRA”. Again, this is misguided given that Mr Toomey has been working on background check legislation. Nonetheless, the President seemed adamant to loosen ties with the group, stating that any bill which contained the NRA’s legislative priority, “Concealed Carry Reciprocity” would fail. So how have the NRA responded?
It is worth noting that the NRA are facing a backlash from private organisations amidst the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. Last week, United and Delta Airlines cancelled discounted rates programmes for NRA members, just as retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart announced new gun restrictions- thus making it all the more important they do not lose traction in the political sphere.
Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the group’s lobbying arm sought to delegitimise the comments, stating “While today’s meeting made for great TV, the gun control policies discussed would make bad policy that wouldn’t keep children safer.” This was an interim response, before Chris Cox, the NRA’s Chief Lobbyist, was rushed to the White House on Thursday evening to meet the President. Whilst it is unclear exactly what was said in the exchange, the outcome seemed to validate Senator Ben Sasse’s comments that the President voiced the opinion of whoever he had spoken to last. Following the meeting, Mr Cox assured the people of twitter that the President had reversed his position and wanted “safe schools, mental health reform and to keep guns away from dangerous people”. Indeed, Trump hailed a “great meeting”.
So once again, comments which were shocking at the time will be largely inconclusive. For now at least, the only thing which can be said with any certainty is that the President has tested his relationship with one of the most powerful elements of his base, and proven that ultimately, he remains at the disposal of the NRA. With a long history of back peddling, no one can know what kind of gun legislation he would sign if a bill ever made it to his desk.
Sources and Further Reading
- “Trump at odds with Republican lawmakers over gun reforms”, BBC News (1 March 2018)
- Michael Shear, “Trump Stuns Lawmakers With Seeming Embrace of Comprehensive Gun Control”, The New York Times (28 February 2018)
- Tom Embury Dennis, “Trump appears to backpedal on gun control remarks after NRA meeting”, The Independent (2 March 2018)
- Jeremy W. Peters, “After Brief Split, Trump and N.R.A. Appear to Reconcile”, The New York Times (2 March 2018)
- Adam Gabbatt, “NRA members on Trump's plans for gun control: 'Every word of it was a betrayal”, The Guardian (1 March 2018)
- Roland Hughes, “Four key dates that shaped the US gun debate”, BBC News (3 March 2018)
- “Trump hails 'great' meeting with NRA lobbyist”, BBC News (2 March 2018)
- “Trump endorses guns for teachers to stop shootings”, BBC News (22 February 2018)
- James Hohmann, “The Daily 202: Trump’s rejection of due process for gun owners points to his disdain for the rule of law”, The Washington Post (1 March 2018)
- Toluse Olorrunipa, “President Trump's 'Take the Guns First' Remark Sparks Due Process Debate”, TIME (3 March 2018)
Image: Gage Skidmore @flickr