National News

Trump Appeals to NRA for Help in Midterm Voting

Posted May 4, 2018 8:06 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2018 8:16 p.m. EDT

DALLAS — President Donald Trump made a passionate appeal to the National Rifle Association on Friday to help him in the midterm elections, renewing his long-standing bond with the controversial gun-rights group just months after criticizing members of Congress for being overly deferential to the gun lobby.

After a season of tumult in the national debate over gun violence, Trump left little doubt about his political allegiance at the NRA’s annual convention in Texas. The president, who briefly mulled a package of incremental gun-control measures after a February high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, cast himself as a lock step ally for the organization and implored its members to vote in November.

“Your Second Amendment rights are under siege,” Trump said. “But they will never, ever be under siege as long as I am your president.”

Trump’s visit to the convention, alongside Vice President Mike Pence, amounted to an unreserved show of support for the NRA, and a further signal that Democrats and Republicans are likely to campaign on diametrically opposed gun-policy platforms this year. Most Democrats have endorsed an assortment of new gun regulations and many have attacked the NRA by name.

Trump, on the other hand, appears likely to rely on the organization as much as ever: Amid florid rhetorical detours to rail against the inquiry led by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 election, and to hail Kanye West for his recent string of supportive comments, Trump focused chiefly Friday on rallying the pro-gun crowd against Democrats. He credited the NRA with helping him secure the presidency in the first place.

“You weren’t sure that Trump was going to win, but you all went out there — you all went out there and you voted,” Trump said, recalling the 2016 campaign.

Trump made no direct reference to the mass marches this year, led in many cases by high school students, demanding tighter gun regulations. But he acknowledged that, as a historical matter, presidents often suffer in midterm elections because their political opposition is far more energized than their supporters.

“They’re fighting like hell, and you’re complacent,” Trump said. “We cannot get complacent. We have to win the midterms.”

The NRA was one of Trump’s most important political allies during the 2016 election, spending more than $30 million to back him even as other big-spending groups on the right distanced themselves from his candidacy. For the most part, Trump has reciprocated the affection, at times hailing the NRA’s top two officials, Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, by name in his stump speeches.

Yet, at moments earlier this year, Trump appeared to veer from his fealty to the organization’s agenda of opposing nearly all new proposals to restrict access to firearms.

After the Parkland mass shooting, Trump suggested raising the minimum age for purchasers of certain weaponry, and indicated that the government should be far more assertive in taking away weapons from people who might be dangerous. (“Take the guns first, go through due process second,” he suggested at a February meeting with members of Congress.)

Trump’s remarks then briefly alarmed gun-rights activists, but the White House did little to convert the president’s musings into policy. And Trump returned to lauding the NRA after dining with LaPierre and Cox in late February.

His joint appearance Friday with Pence was a grand kind of political gesture: Trump and Pence are the first president and vice president to address the group together in the organization’s history, NRA officials said.

The president’s wintertime inconstancy was a matter of little concern to attendees in Dallas, who enthusiastically cheered Trump’s perorations on subjects ranging from North Korean peace talks to his vote tally in the Electoral College.

John Duckworth, who sported a red “Make America Great Again” hat outside the arena where Trump spoke, said he had perceived the president’s vague comments about gun control earlier this year as a ploy “to get the Democrats and other people to enter into the conversation.”

“He likes the argument,” said Duckworth, 50, a contractor from Austin. “At no time did I think he was going to be interested in taking people’s guns away.”

Duckworth added that the Trump-Pence tag-team appearance was encouraging: “It’s very good that they’re supporting the NRA.”

The NRA convention has unfolded as a display of strength and defiance for a group that is battling furious criticism from Democrats in Washington and on the midterm campaign trail. The NRA has faced several policy setbacks on the state level in recent months, as Republican governors in Florida and Vermont signed gun restrictions the group opposed.

Yet if Parkland cast a shadow over the political speeches Friday, it was a faint one.

The president alluded to the “monstrous attack” in Florida and described having been moved by his meetings with parents and survivors. But he dismissed gun-control proposals as ineffective, and pointed to a funding package for school-safety measures as an alternative. Both Trump and Pence again called for allowing certain people to carry firearms on school property. And arguing that gun rights were at stake in November, Trump invoked foreign cities like Paris and London where firearms are harder to obtain and blamed those gun laws for acts of terrorism.

Trump mimicked what he described as the unimpeded massacre of unarmed people in a Paris terror attack: “Come over here — boom,” he said, imitating the firing of a gun with his hand.

If victims had been armed, Trump said, things might have ended differently.

Cox, speaking minutes before Trump, acknowledged the “horrible tragedy” of the Parkland massacre, and emphatically rejected the stricter gun regulations that Democrats and some Republicans have proposed.

Rather than blaming gun owners for mass shootings, Cox said, Americans should reproach the institutions of government and law enforcement that fail to stop such killings. He criticized the FBI and the Broward County, Florida, sheriff’s department for neglecting to act on repeated signals that Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland gunman, appeared to be violent and dangerous.

“The 5 million law-abiding men and women of the National Rifle Association will not accept one shred of blame for the acts of madmen and the failures of government,” Cox said.