The National Rifle Association’s endorsement of Donald Trump for president at its annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday was the latest sign that the gun group is going all-in on Republican candidates — even if doing so risks alienating many of its own members.
In the last two presidential elections, the NRA waited until October — just a month before the general election — to formally endorse the Republican nominee. Neither of those candidates, John McCain and Mitt Romney, were viewed by many rank-and-file NRA members with as much suspicion as Trump, who has voiced support for gun restrictions in the past.
Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist, announced the group was backing Trump before a raucous crowd at the Kentucky Exposition Center, where tens of thousands of NRA members had gathered for the group’s 145th Annual Meeting. The early endorsement was an apparent appeal to unify Republicans after an intensely divisive primary season. “If your preferred candidate dropped out of the race, it’s time to get over it,” Cox said.
Outside the convention, many NRA members told The Trace that they aren’t convinced that Trump’s recent pro-gun comments are sincere.
“Trump will say whatever he needs to say to win, but I don’t think he has any convictions,” says Lee Wilson, an NRA member from Florida. Wilson says he views former GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz as a genuine defender of the Second Amendment, not just someone who plays lip service to it in order to get votes. “I don’t feel safe with Trump.”
Wilson’s concerns are rooted in the presumptive Republican nominee’s previous support for moderate gun control measures. In 2000, Trump backed a ban on assault weapons and longer waiting periods to purchase firearms. He also criticized Republicans for kowtowing to the NRA, and refusing “even limited restrictions” on guns. And in 2012, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, he lauded President Barack Obama’s calls for gun reform, saying Obama “spoke for me and every American.”
Trump has since walked back those views. During the speech on Friday, he said he represented the last line of defense between Americans and their gun rights. Trump asserted that Hillary Clinton would “abolish the Second Amendment,” and proclaimed that he would “nourish” and “take care of it.”
The NRA’s top executive, Wayne LaPierre, reminded the audience that they will never vote in a more important election. Without Trump, he declared, “You can kiss your guns goodbye.”
The NRA’s early endorsement of Trump is the latest evidence that America’s largest gun-rights group now operates as an adjunct of the Republican party. For much of the last four decades, the organization supported candidates from both parties in national elections, so long as their position on guns aligned with that of the NRA. But as the nation has grown more polarized, so too has the NRA. An analysis of federal election spending data by The Trace and the New York Daily News found that the group now deploys its vast financial resources almost entirely on behalf of the GOP.
But the NRA faces a challenge as it tries to appeal to both the Republican establishment and its own members.
“I’m [as] on the fence as I can humanly be,” says Matthew Rogers, a 39-year-old NRA member and gunsmith from Arkansas. “I think we’re going to see Trump move as hard and fast to the middle as possible.” Rogers says he’s now considering the Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson.
Another NRA member, Amber, a 27-year-old from Pennsylvania who declined to give her last name, expressed outright contempt for her organization’s favored candidate. “Will I vote for Trump? Hell no,” she said. “I probably won’t vote at all.”
To some observers, the NRA’s endorsement of Trump means that the needs of the Republican Party now supersede those of gun-rights supporters.
On Red State, an influential conservative website, commenters reacted with disbelief to a piece about the Trump endorsement. “What I don’t get,” one reader asked, “is why didn’t the NRA at least extract an acknowledgement or apology or explanation out of Trump for his anti 2A [Second Amendment] past statements and actions?”
There’s no way to tell how many of the NRA’s claimed 5 million members support or oppose Trump. The alternative, likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, is viewed with deep distrust in the gun rights community. On the stump, Clinton has bashed the NRA, and said the organization stands in the way of common-sense gun laws, such as background checks, that a majority of Americans support.
In Louisville on Sunday, a prominent NRA member echoed LaPierre’s warning that Clinton wants to confiscate their firearms.
Ted Nugent, who was re-elected to the group’s board this weekend despite making a series of anti-Semitic and racist outbursts earlier this year, declared his unequivocal support for Trump. “I think that the Donald has awakened” on gun rights, he told a sparse crowd at a seminar that was open to the public. “Everyone in your life — fix them if they’re not ready to vote for Trump.”
The NRA declined to issue The Trace press credentials for its annual convention. Reporter Mike Spies spoke with the group’s members outside the event in Louisville.
[Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images]