The photograph captured the National Rifle Association at one of the most influential moments in its 145-year history.
On February 1, a day after Neil Gorsuch was nominated to the Supreme Court, President Donald Trump convened a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House to make an announcement. He was surrounded by a group of high-profile conservatives, but if proximity to the president indicated importance, then the NRA was at the top of the pecking order. Sitting next to Trump was the group’s executive vice president and public face, Wayne LaPierre.
During the presidential campaign, the NRA spent over $30 million in support of Trump, more than any other outside group. After eight years of butting heads with the Obama administration, it found an ally who promised to “cherish” the Second Amendment and abolish gun-free zones; someone eager to celebrate an association with the NRA, and willing to invite its top lobbyist to speak at the Republican National Convention.
The contrast to previous administrations, even friendly ones, was stark. President George W. Bush was an enthusiastic supporter of gun rights, but he had his limits. During his first presidential campaign, an NRA executive was caught on tape saying that, should Bush win, “we work out of their office.” Bush swiftly disputed that claim.
The right-wing conservatives now ascendant in Washington are not so shy about their ties to the gun group, and the NRA and its allies are championing policies that would formerly be regarded as fringe. At the federal level, the NRA’s top legislative priority is a bill that would require states to honor each other’s laws governing the concealed carrying of handguns. Another gun-rights measure pending in Congress would legalize silencers, and a third would abolish gun-free school zones.
Meanwhile, 12 state legislatures are considering bills that would deregulate the carrying of concealed guns in public spaces, allowing residents to carry pistols without permits or basic safety training. Thirteen states are debating whether to allow firearms on college campuses or in schools.
With the NRA on the march, The Trace spoke with Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York, Cortland, and one of the country’s foremost experts on gun policy, about what changes the advocacy group can expect under a Trump administration, and which of its goals may meet resistance.
Before yesterday’s meeting, can you think of another instance in which Wayne LaPierre sat next to a United States president in such a high-profile setting?
My guess is there are photos of Wayne with Bush. Bush was certainly very pro-NRA, and the group had access to the White House. In fact, Bush was the most gun-friendly president in history, until Trump came along. But Bush didn’t make as big a deal about it. Trump, however, has no subtlety, and a good president knows when to be subtle. Bush was doing the NRA’s bidding, but he didn’t want to be obvious about it.
What does Trump’s willingness to showcase his relationship with the NRA mean?
We don’t know yet. Trump has promised to act on the gun issue in a way the NRA would like, but he hasn’t done it yet because, at the moment, he has bigger fish to fry.
So the question remains: Will he follow through with his campaign promises, and how strongly will he push them?
Bush advocated heavily for the 2005 law protecting gun manufacturers from liability lawsuits. That legislation was pushed directly from the White House, and found plenty of supporters in Congress. Will Trump take the same initiative? Or will he just sit back, let Congress do the work, sign the bill when it comes to him, and then take credit? In general, Trump doesn’t really care all that much about policy. But the NRA did pour money into his campaign, and he is beholden to them and grateful for their support. That counts in the NRA’s favor.
So you expect Trump will do the NRA’s bidding?
Look at the gun-silencer bill, called the Hearing Protection Act. Trump’s son is advocating for the deregulation of silencers, which is virtually as good as the president doing it himself. And of course the Number One item on the NRA’s agenda is nationwide reciprocity for people with concealed-carry permits. Trump has said he supports it, and I would assume Trump will stand behind it.
Why push reciprocity and silencers and not something more sweeping, such as the repeal of the background check system?
The NRA can make advancements on multiple fronts, but it still has to exert care, proceed at least with some sense of caution, and I’m sure the NRA knows this. Which is to say, turning to your example, there is, at bare minimum, very widespread support for at least minimal background checks. So the NRA still wants to tread carefully.
Key to this is finding benign-sounding ways to advance legislative priorities, and reciprocity is a good fit. It sounds so simple, especially when you draw an analogy to driver’s licenses. You have a driver’s license in Pennsylvania, so you should be able to use it in New York, too. But nationwide reciprocity would be a major change in the laws of most states. It would reduce the concealed-carry permitting standards of every state to those of the state with the most minimal criteria. The NRA is quite ingenious in finding ways of doing these things.
Do you think the reciprocity proposal has a chance of passing Congress?
The key question is whether Senate Democrats would be able to block it. I think this would be pretty high up on the list of bills Democrats would want to filibuster, and it’s hard to imagine Republicans forging a compromise to get around it. If Democrats can make a filibuster stick, I’m not sure what is the path to advancement.
There’s also a federal bill seeking to repeal the Gun-Free School Zones Act. Do you think it has a shot?
It’s a tough call, precisely because we’re talking about public schools, and that’s much more of a state matter. I think almost every state still has a gun-free school zone law on the books. I think an effort to repeal gun-free school zones would be met with a fair amount of resistance. Unlike reciprocity, you can’t really paste over guns in public schools.
That’s also true of a lot of the legislation advancing at the state level: There are permitless-carry bills, campus-carry bills, bills to allow guns in airports and government buildings. These are measures that, until recently, were considered fringe. Now some of them are top priorities for state Republican parties.
They’ve become viable because we’ve seen a rightward shift in American politics, generally speaking. Ideas that are viable today would have been seen as far too extreme 20 years ago. The rightwing itself has become far more conservative. There’s all kinds of data on this. Democrats, ideologically, are pretty much where they’ve been over the last 20 years. But Republicans have become far more conservative. That’s part of the reason why Trump won. The gun bills the NRA pushes are part of this larger rightward shift — that, and the never-ending drumbeat from the NRA that gun rights are under attack. The inevitable consequence of all the apocalyptic rhetoric is that you continually move toward what would have been considered an extremist agenda in years gone by. Part of the reason the NRA keeps moving in that direction is that it has gotten much of what it wants. The NRA has to keep developing new measures to enact to have a purpose, maintain support, and keep the base motivated.
I wonder how the NRA will measure success over the next four years. It seems its concerns go beyond gun rights — for instance, it appears to have a stake in the fight over immigration, too.
A cluster of issues come together with gun rights zealots. They’re predominantly older white males who think the country is falling apart at the seams; they’re suspicious of outsiders, and quick to blame others for issues the country may face. The worldview typical of an NRA member is the same as that of a far-right conservative person. This is the group that has been very important for the Trump coalition.
Last question: Is there anything that might decrease the NRA’s sway over the Republican party?
The simple answer: No — not as long as the Republican base continues to be what it is.