Gun lobby cries betrayal as Trump flirts with control
Attempts to change gun legislation will be difficult due to president's backing by NRA, writes Richard Lardner
As US President Donald Trump talked last week about banning "bump stocks" and curbing young people's access to guns, the gun owners and advocates who helped propel his political rise talked about desertion and betrayal.
Trump's flirtation with a set of modest gun control measures drew swift condemnation from gun groups, hunters and sportsmen who banked on the president to be a stalwart opponent to any new gun restrictions. In his pledge to make schools safer and curb gun violence after the massacre at a Florida high school, gun advocates see a weakening resolve from the man they spent millions on to elect.
"Out in the firearms community there is a great feeling of betrayal and abandonment, because of the support he was given in his campaign for president," Tony Fabian, president of the Colorado Sports Shooting Association, said last Friday.
The comments highlight how little room the president and his party have to manoeuvre without angering and activating the politically powerful gun rights community. Trump has not yet formally proposed any legislative plan and he spent much of the week endorsing the notion of arming teachers and school officials - a plan the gun lobby supports. Still, just floating proposals that defy the National Rifle Association and other groups drew threats of political retribution and legal action.
The confrontation is set to test whether Trump, a figure deeply popular with his party's base, is willing to risk his political capital to take on a constituency few Republicans have challenged.
"The president has a unique ability right now to maybe really do something about these school shootings," said Tom Rooney, a Republican from Florida. "Nobody is more popular in my district - and I know in a lot of other people's districts - than Donald Trump. He's more popular than the NRA... So it's up to him whether or not anything happens with guns."
The wind may be blowing in favour of action. Already several US companies have cut ties with the NRA amid calls for a boycott of businesses linked to the gun lobby.
The firms include car rental giants Hertz and Enterprise, which had offered discounts for NRA members.
And Florida Governor Rick Scott said he would work with the Republican-controlled legislature over the next two weeks to raise the minimum legal age for buying any gun in Florida from 18 to 21, with some exceptions for younger individuals serving in the military or law enforcement.
But Scott, who has been endorsed by the NRA and received its highest rating for supporting gun owners, said he opposed an outright ban on assault rifles.
After 17 people were killed by a teenager, Trump declared that assault rifles should be kept out of the hands of anyone under 21. He endorsed more stringent background checks for gun buyers, and ordered his Justice Department to work toward banning rapid-fire "bump stock" devices.
But gun owners are a militant lot. The lobby group Gun Owners of America issued an alert last week urging its 1.5m members to call the White House and "Tell Trump to OPPOSE All Gun Control!"
A member of the group said the organisation doesn't hesitate to oppose Republican incumbents and candidates whom it deems not sufficiently "pro-gun". Motivating gun owners to go to the polls - not campaign funding - is the source of the gun lobby's strength, he said.
"When they feel gun ownership is threatened, then they're going to respond as if that's the pre-eminent issue," he said.
Paul Paradis, who owns a gun store in Colorado Springs, was enthusiastic about letting teachers carry firearms on campus. But he was incredulous about the notion of outlawing bump stocks and increasing the age requirement for buying a long gun.
"Trump can propose anything he wants but it's got to get through two houses of Congress and the Supreme Court," Paradis said.
Colorado has been a test case for the politics of gun control and the ability of gun groups to retaliate against those who vote for it. In 2013, after the Aurora theatre shooting was followed by the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, Colorado's Democrat-controlled state legislature passed a package of gun restrictions, including universal background checks and a ban on magazines that hold more than 15 bullets.
Gun control advocates hoped to roll the programme out to other states after showing a libertarian, Western state could pass the bills. But then the NRA backed successful recalls of two Democratic state lawmakers who backed the legislation. The momentum ended.
Democrats won back those seats in the 2016 election. Still, the message has lingered: Democrats have not proposed any major gun legislation since the recalls.
There are an estimated 55m gun owners in the US. The influential National Rifle Association, which spent about $30m in support of Trump's presidential campaign, is firmly opposed to raising the legal age for the purchase of long guns from 18 to 21. After floating the idea, Trump declined to reiterate his proposal to increase age restrictions during wide-ranging remarks last Friday before the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Trump's call to restrict bump stocks such as the ones used in last year's Las Vegas massacre triggered outrage among gun owners. The devices allow a shooter's semi-automatic rifle to mimic a machine gun. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is conducting a review to determine if it can regulate bump stocks without action from Congress.
But several gun rights advocates said the answer is an unequivocal no. Only Congress has the power to make such a move. ATF has received thousands of comments as part of the review and many are from gun owners who see potential regulation as a slippery slope that will lead to administrative bans on triggers, magazines and even firearms themselves.