Not long after a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018, President Trump wanted people to know that he had the courage to stand up to the National Rifle Association and support new restrictions on gun sales. “Now, this is not a popular thing to say, in terms of the NRA. But I’m saying it anyway,” he said. Noting that under federal law you have to be 21 to buy a handgun from a licensed dealer but only 18 to buy a military-style rifle like the ones used by so many mass shooters, he suggested that raising the minimum age for long guns was “something you have to think about.”
But after criticism from gun advocates, Trump backed down. Though his administration would go on to ban bump stocks — a move the NRA treated with a combination of halfhearted support and halfhearted opposition — he did what the NRA wanted. The minimum federal age to buy an AR-15 or a semiautomatic AK-47 is still 18.
I recount that story because we’re about to see it repeated. And Republicans are going to be punished for it.
Just as he did last year, Trump is responding to a high-profile mass shooting (two, in this case) by saying he’ll consider some measures to restrict access to guns. He expressed support for “strong background checks,” something that gets more support in polls than just about any policy proposal in existence. Yet just this February, the House passed a universal background check bill, and Trump threatened to veto it. In the end he didn’t have to, because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stopped the bill in the Senate.
So if you think the Trump administration is going to support universal background checks, you’re wrong. What he’ll actually do is give the NRA some assurances that he’s still on its side, then hope the issue just goes away. Which of course it won’t, because there will be more mass shootings between now and next November.
Trump already signaled to the gun lobby that they shouldn’t worry in his public statement Monday when he said, “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.” That’s why one senior GOP lawmaker told Politico, “There aren’t many Republicans who trust that the president won’t change his mind” on background checks. They know he’s not telling the truth about what he’ll support.
For a long time, the politics of guns has been framed by a particular piece of conventional wisdom: While majorities of the public may support many restrictions, gun rights supporters are much more intense in their feelings and therefore wield outsize power. They’re single-issue voters, determined to punish any candidate who strays from the NRA line, while those on the other side have plenty of other issues they care about just as much.
That was always an oversimplified picture, but even if it was once true, it no longer is. As Bloomberg reports, some Republicans are growing increasingly worried that their party’s doctrinaire position on guns — even opposing universal background checks, which are supported by around 90 percent of the public — could be politically disastrous among suburban moderates who may be turning away from the party because of a broader disgust with Trump:
The 2018 election reflected a changing landscape on guns. Republicans were swept out of the House majority after losing suburban bastions where they were once dominant — in places like Orange County, California, and around Dallas and Houston in Texas. Voters in 2018 favored stricter gun control by a margin of 22 percentage points, and those who did backed Democrats by a margin of 76% to 22%, according to exit polls. Gun policy ranked as the No. 4 concern, and voters who cited it as their top issue voted for Democrats by a margin of 70% to 29%.
Any Republican who isn’t scared about the challenge he or she faces in the suburbs isn’t paying attention.
The problem for Republican officeholders is that they believe they have no choice but to hew to the NRA line whether they like it or not. Most of them represent conservative districts and states where the only threat to their political survival comes in the form of a primary challenge from the right. Any deviation from conservative orthodoxy, including a categorical opposition to nearly any gun restriction, could produce that challenge. So they can’t risk it.
That illustrates the complicated interplay of local and national considerations: What a particular member needs to succeed in his or her district, when combined with 200 other members serving the same need, can be disastrous for the party as a whole.
Next year, the NRA — which is tearing itself apart from the inside — will once again tell its supporters that if they don’t vote Republican, jackbooted government thugs will soon be breaking down their doors and confiscating their guns. It’s a message that has worked before. But the message from the other side, about a GOP that refuses to consider even the most modest measures to reduce the carnage we’ve been told is just the cost of “freedom,” may finally be the louder one.