In Donald Trump’s first major public appearance since his historic arrest, the former president evoked his “pro-gun” policies but refrained from delving into his indictment when he spoke at a National Rifle Association (NRA) convention on Friday in Indianapolis.
Trump headlined the annual NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the Indiana Convention Center, where he and other Republican presidential hopefuls spoke to gun owners — key conservative constituents.
For Trump, his appearance additionally served as a test to see if he still has the public support of GOP voters, despite his ongoing legal difficulties.
“I will be your loyal friend and fearless leader once again as the 47th President of the United States,” Trump said to an enthusiastic audience. “We’re going to have a very successful election and take back that beautiful White House.”
The NRA held its convention within two weeks of the country’s latest mass shootings, one at a school in Nashville and another at a bank in Louisville. Political pressure on Republicans to support at least some kind of gun control has mounted since the killings.
Democrats admonished Republicans for appearing at the event, arguing that GOP hopefuls showed up “to pledge their undying loyalty to the NRA and the gun lobby.”
“Republicans are going to make it 100% clear to the public that — given the choice between our families and the gun industry — national Republicans are choosing the gun industry again,” he continued,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-CT, during a Democratic National Committee news conference on Thursday.
“The Republican Party continues to put the gun industry and the gunmakers before the safety of our kids and our families. It’s extraordinary, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s infuriating,” he continued.
Trump avoids his arrest
Trump addressed thousands in the NRA audience just ten days after pleading not guilty in New York City to charges of falsifying business records in order to cover up hush money payments and campaign finance violations. That made him the first U.S. president — former or current — to be charged with a crime.
Although Trump gave a speech at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida hours after his arraignment in New York, Friday’s appearance at the NRA-ILA conference was his first public showing.
“I promised I would save the Second Amendment, and we’re going to save it for a long time to come — forever, as far as I’m concerned,” he said shortly after taking the stage, following a minutes-long standing ovation from the crowd.
Trump has consistently supported NRA-backed gun policies. He credited the group with giving him a significant political boost during his first presidential campaign in 2016.
But former Vice President Mike Pence was met with a mix of boos and hesitant applause as he took the stage a few hours earlier.
The former Indiana governor has found himself in an interesting position — he’s expected to testify before a grand jury soon about his dealings with Trump in relation to the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
While he said previously that Trump was wrong to demand electoral votes favorable to Biden be thrown out, Pence has otherwise defended Trump amid the multiple, ongoing investigations of the ex-president.
Pence did not comment about the insurrection on Friday, but instead focussed his remarks on his commitment to Second Amendment rights, securing the U.S. border and fighting “left-wing dogma.”
“It’s time we take a stand for ‘America the free,’” Pence said. “We will kick these liberal meddlers out of our gun stores and out of your lives.”
He also commented on recent mass shootings, which he largely attributed to “trans activists” and individuals with “mental health challenges.” He emphasized that those who engage in such shootings should face the death penalty “in a matter of months” after the crime.
“The answer to mass shootings is not fewer guns, but more institutional mental health in this country,” he said. “These people shouldn’t be in prison because they never should have been allowed out on the streets to commit the crimes they committed.”
Authorities in the Nashville shooting have identified the shooter as a woman who used male pronouns but have not shared any evidence linking Audrey Hale’s gender identity to the motive for the attack.
More GOP speakers rally for gun rights
Other presidential aspirants looking to bolster their political profiles addressed gun owners, too.
Prospective rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott — all of whom spoke via video to the NRA — doubled down on their right-to-firearms stances.
“There are some today who see the Second Amendment as an outdated bill, reminiscent of a bygone era,” said DeSantis, who has yet to formally declare his 2024 candidacy. “It is no coincidence that throughout history, one of the first things that authoritarian regimes have sought to do is to disarm their own citizens.”
Businessman and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy held that self defense through the use of firearms “is not a crime in this country,” and suggested that lawmakers should “ban social media” for kids before attempting to “take guns away.” He further promised to “shut down” the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) if elected president.
Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, earlier called on Trump to suspend his campaign because of the indictment. He said Friday that he will “continue to stand” for the NRA and Second Amendment but did not speak about Trump.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan — three other NRA speakers — are also considering presidential bids.
“Why do the liberals of Joe Biden want our guns? Because it will make it easier for them to infringe on our other rights,” Noem said Friday in Indianapolis. “Because each of you … and the NRA, because we have successfully held off federal legislation that would infringe on our fundamental, constitutional right to bear arms, we have kept our rights from being crushed.”