Yesterday President Trump opened his mouth, and the result was surely some panicked spit-takes over at the headquarters of the National Rifle Association. By today, they’re probably reassuring themselves that he didn’t mean what he said and nothing will come of it.
Which is perfectly true. But the incident shows how the ground is shifting beneath what is sometimes regarded as the most powerful lobbying group in Washington.
Here’s how it went down:
Sitting with a group of Democrats and Republicans, including some who are backed by the NRA, Trump made what sounded like an extraordinary break with the powerful gun-rights organization. He accused lawmakers of being so “petrified” by the NRA that they have not been willing to take even small steps on gun control.
“They have great power over you people,” Trump said. “They have less power over me.” …
Most striking were Trump’s remarks decrying what he called excessive “checks and balances” that limit what can be done to prevent mentally unfit people from buying or keeping guns.
“Take the firearms first, and then go to court,” Trump said, cutting off Vice President Pence as Pence articulated a version of the due-process arguments that the NRA and other gun-rights advocates have used to derail past gun-control measures. “You could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.”
The Weekly Standard described Republicans on Capitol Hill as “gobsmacked” by Trump’s comments, but they also knew that it would be forgotten before long. “At some point, someone will tell the president what he endorsed and it will be like the meeting never happened,” said a GOP Senate aide. After all, we’ve seen this before: Trump takes some seemingly liberal position when he’s in front of the cameras — we’ll protect the “dreamers,” we won’t cut Medicaid — but once it’s time to actually craft policy, what he signs off on is always a perfect expression of conservative ideology.
Incidents such as these show how Republicans who worried back in 2016 that Trump would be ideologically unreliable were both right and wrong. On one hand, they had reason to be concerned that on the spur of the moment he’d take stances that contradict conservative dogma, just because it seems like the popular thing to do. On the other hand, he’s easily guided back to the proper conservative position once he gets it out of his system.
By this morning, Trump was tweeting “Respect 2nd Amendment!,” to calm the palpitating hearts of gun advocates. But just by talking about the NRA’s power over Republican legislators, he had broken a taboo. That kind of thing is for Democrats to say — if you’re a Republican, you’re supposed to insist that the NRA is nothing more than a principled representative of millions of responsible gun owners whose beliefs you share. Why was Trump, who got so much support from the NRA in 2016 and who pledged at the group’s convention last year, “To the NRA, I can proudly say, I will never ever let you down,” insulting it in this way?
The answer is that Trump has an instinctive feel for public opinion, and he probably senses that the NRA is isolating itself with the extremism of its rhetoric and opposition to even hugely popular gun restrictions such as universal background checks. He watches a lot of TV news — yes, Fox, but also CNN and sometimes MSNBC — so he has been seeing the kids from Parkland and stories about companies ending their partnerships with the NRA. He surely senses that for the moment anyway, the NRA is looking beleaguered and unpopular. He also likes to present himself as uniquely immune to pressures other politicians buckle under.
Furthermore, Trump probably sees no contradiction in wanting to arm teachers but also being fine with raising the minimum age to buy a military-style rifle to 21. It’s not that there’s any logical contradiction, but for the NRA and other maximalist gun advocates, any limitation on gun ownership is regarded as the first step toward an inevitable plunge toward gun confiscation, in which Nancy Pelosi would personally come to your house and snatch the Glock from your bedside table, leaving you defenseless before the marauders who will arrive in her wake to kill you and your family. But Trump isn’t bound by the lines that ideologues believe are important.
Likewise, his unformed idea about ditching due process to take guns from dangerous people may raise plenty of practical questions he hasn’t even considered, but it’s almost certainly sincere. As Alex Burns of the New York Times noted, “This is where Trump’s favorable view of the NRA, as a personal political ally, runs up against his DNA as a 1980s-type Giuliani Republican.” In other words, legal procedures, even those protecting a right he claims to support, are always secondary to the goal of law and order. As far as he’s concerned, the police should be able to do whatever they want — stop and frisk entire populations, take away certain people’s guns, crack some skulls — if it lets the lowlifes know who’s boss.
But not only won’t we be ditching due process to take guns away from anyone, there won’t be any serious gun legislation coming out of Congress any time soon. At most, they might pass the “Fix NICS” bill, which does little more than remind federal and state agencies that they have to comply with existing rules on reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (the bill is so modest even the NRA doesn’t oppose it).
Nevertheless, the fact that this president is willing to portray standing up to the NRA as a good thing is significant in and of itself. It shows that the group’s image as all-powerful has been punctured. As cowardly as Democrats have been in the past when it comes to using guns as a campaign issue, this year will be different. In many swing districts, Democratic candidates will be campaigning on guns, and will win. You might even see some Republicans running in blue and purple areas who begin tentatively breaking with the NRA, to show that even if they support gun rights, they aren’t whack jobs when it comes to the issue.
And that’s how change could actually begin.