“They’re chickenshit. Believe me,” extolled the would-be president to a crowd of elated supporters in Spencer, Iowa. Just two days before, a married couple opened fire at a Christmas party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 and wounding 22 others. The tragedy provided political fuel for the often-unscripted Republican, particularly because the shooters were Brown, immigrants, and Muslim. “You know what a gun-free zone means? …That’s like the meat for these killers,” Donald Trump insisted.
Even though Trump had as recently as 2012 shown support for measures like a ban on assault weapons and increased wait times for gun purchases, he was a known gun owner, a point he boasted about often — and to the eager acceptance of the conservative masses.
At the time of Trump’s surprise early endorsement by the National Rifle Association in 2016 — the organization usually waits until a nominee is chosen by the Republican Party — gun policy was the Wild West. Congress had essentially been frozen on the topic of gun control, with states feuding over their own disparate policies. Nationally, the Obama administration had done little to affect gun policy, with the then-president telling the BBC that it was “one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied.”
Despite no significant gun control laws being passed, public fears of totalitarian gun policies under the Democratic regime propelled a robust rise in gun sales. And Trump, in contrast, promised a firearm owners’ utopia. Concealed carry licensees would be able to carry nationwide. Gun-free zones were to be abolished immediately. Trump even sent his son Donald Trump, Jr. to liaise with a Utah silencer company, stirring notions that he might reverse regulations on suppressors. When Trump took office in January 2017, gun owners’ hopes were high that it would signal a new era.
Instead, the dream of a gun rights utopia fizzled.
“It’s been a very mixed legacy, and overall, potentially a great disappointment for gun rights advocates,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor and gun policy expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, who notes that a number of the pledges Trump used to court groups like the NRA were not executed. “Like many issues in the Trump presidency, there are many promises, some of which were clearly broken.”
Trump’s Day One promise of banning gun-free zones never happened at all. When presented with an opportunity to push national concealed carry into law, Trump rejected it. And on suppressors, Trump later said he didn’t “like them at all.”
Coincidentally, the National Rifle Association, which invested big in Trump in 2016, found its own status and influence thrown into disarray. Once providing resounding back-up to to Trump’s firearm policy, it was tangled up in allegations of financial impropriety and scandal. (The organization’s ties to Trump even made the group a conduit for Russian election interference and illegal foreign support.)
Rather than presenting tangible gun policy initiatives, Trump made his decisions depending on the political moment, which made him nearly impossible to predict. In 2017, he reversed an Obama-era executive order meant to make it harder for those with mental illness to buy guns. A year later, in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, the president stunned Republicans on live television by calling to “take the guns first, go through due process second.” He then indicated support for an array of gun control measures — which, themselves, never actually materialized.
In late 2018, Trump made one of his biggest gun policy moves: He banned bump stocks — an add-on device meant to simulate near-automatic rates of fire on conventional guns. The devices came under scrutiny after a shooter in Las Vegas used a cache of bump-stock equipped rifles to kill 60 people and wound 411 others in 2017. The president then appeased gun companies in 2020 with a small concession, reversing a 2002 restriction banning the sale of silencers internationally.
“I think much of what he did was mostly about bluster and politics and showmanship,” said Timothy Lytton, a Georgia State Law professor and expert on gun violence. Lytton adds that Trump’s approach to guns mirrored strategies that the president employed in other realms, which often focused less on presenting specific policy and more on shoring up constituencies through rhetoric.
Lytton said the last four years of gun policy has mostly been determined by minor regulatory actions from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or through traditional lobbying, without any large, fundamental changes to the gun control landscape. “The stalemate in Washington over gun legislation of any kind generally stayed true all the way through the Trump administration.”
But Trump’s crowning achievement in gun policy may be impossible to fully assess yet: his Supreme Court appointments.
“It may well be that that big legacy of Trump is three judicial nominees who are very, very wedded to an aggrandized view of the Second Amendment,” said John Donohue, a law professor and economist at Stanford University.
Two of Trump’s Supreme Court appointees climbed to the top after signalling expansive views on Second Amendment law. In 2011, Judge Brett Kavanaugh notably skewed from his fellow Republican judges when he wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that Washington, D.C.’s gun registration requirements and assault weapon ban were unconstitutional. And in 2019, Judge Amy Coney Barrett wrote a dissenting opinion challenging the federal government’s prohibition on felons owning guns.
Since 2008, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to take on Second Amendment cases, leaving the states to hash out matters like magazine capacity restrictions and assault weapons bans. This new court may decide to take on such cases, meaning state-level regulations could be in jeopardy. But until the right case comes along, there’s no way to tell how the Supreme Court might choose to act.
One clear marker of Trump’s influence on the firearms issue is the world he leaves behind: a world in which guns are seen as necessities in the eyes of more Americans. In 2020 especially, economic instability, civil unrest, and a global pandemic have pushed Americans to buy guns at record high levels.
“Gun sales really proliferated, oftentimes in these older white communities,” Donohue said. “Fear is such a powerful force in certain sectors of American life.” He points to a conservative lineage of dread-inducing rhetoric around crime that appeals to the racist undercurrent of American society, and which was tapped into by both Trump and his close ally, the NRA. When Black and Brown demonstrators took to the streets to demonstrate against racialized violence, Trump in turn directed his messaging toward his constituents, calling demonstrators “thugs” and “anti-American” and, in 2020, running on a violent platform of restoring “law and order.”
It is this America — more armed and anxious, and perhaps more violent — that President Joe Biden and his administration must now lead. Donohue says that such inflammatory rhetoric may take years to wear off, with ripple effects that will be seen for a long time to come: “The combination of racism, and fear of crime, especially when they’re melded together… is very troubling.”