Trump addresses an embattled NRA as he campaigns against Biden’s gun policies

Gun Rights

Dallas
CNN
 — 

In May 2016, near the zenith of its political sway, the National Rifle Association endorsed Donald Trump for president in a symbolic but forceful show of support for a Republican whose commitment to gun owners was still largely unknown. The group then spent more than $30 million to help elect Trump that November.

Trump arrives here Saturday for the NRA’s annual convention having proven himself a reliable ally of Second Amendment activists over the intervening eight years. Significantly less clear, though, is how much the NRA can help Trump’s bid to win the White House once again.

The NRA enters the 2024 election cycle with its future uncertain and relevance in question. A series of cascading scandals related to financial misconduct have badly damaged the reputation and coffers of the nation’s most prominent gun rights group, culminating in February with a New York jury finding the organization and top executives liable in a civil corruption case. Amid the turmoil, the NRA’s longtime CEO, Wayne LaPierre, stepped down. After several years of internal power struggles, the organization will attempt this weekend to install new leadership.

It’s a stunning fall for a group that at its peak commanded enough Republican votes in Congress to stall almost any action to restrict firearms, even amid periods of national grief over mass shootings.

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“I haven’t heard anything about the NRA since I literally can’t remember when,” said one veteran Republican strategist, who nevertheless asked not to be named in order to speak freely. “It’s been years, plural. I’ve heard nothing. Full stop nothing.”

The strategist added: “I just think they’re not relevant anymore.”

Trump, for his part, has publicly stood by the embattled organization. Political organizers affiliated with the NRA were among a recent gathering of conservative groups at Mar-a-Lago arranged by the Trump campaign to plot a grassroots strategy for the fall, a source with knowledge of the meeting told CNN. The campaign did not respond to questions about the looming NRA leadership vote, but two close allies, North Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and the former president’s son Donald Trump Jr., have at various times been linked to the top job.

Trump’s appearance puts him in a firmly red state in front of a loyal crowd on one of the few days he’s not required in Manhattan for his ongoing criminal trial. It follows another campaign stop outside the battleground map last Saturday in reliably blue New Jersey. Trump will also speak at a Libertarian Party conference in Washington, DC, next weekend.

However, the former president has also used his days off from court as another opportunity to raise money as his campaign continues an aggressive push to catch up to President Joe Biden’s growing war chest. Trump has spent the majority of his time outside the courtroom hosting and attending fundraisers — including one Friday in Minnesota and three others this week.

Despite the NRA’s recent tumult and Trump’s limited opportunities to campaign, the annual gathering of gun enthusiasts remains a critical constituency for fundraising, said Bryan Lanza, a Republican lobbyist who was part of the former president’s 2016 campaign.

“Donald Trump has funded his campaign primarily on small-dollar donations,” Lanza said. “The NRA is a small-dollar organization that has built a behemoth, if not a political giant, in the United States. Their convention draws in 20,000, maybe even 30,000 folks, who are passionate about guns, who spend money. That seems like the audience I’d want to be speaking to, even if it was in Wyoming.”

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

As he seeks a second term, Trump has promised to remain an unflinching supporter of the NRA and its agenda to unravel four years of Biden’s actions on guns. Biden’s campaign has branded Trump “the greatest defender of the Second Amendment to ever occupy the White House.”

At an NRA gathering earlier this year, Trump boasted that he rejected calls for action on gun safety throughout his time in the Oval Office.

“During my four years, nothing happened,” the former president told the February gathering in Pennsylvania. “And there was great pressure on me having to do with guns. We did nothing. We didn’t yield.”

The Biden campaign and gun safety groups are eager to remind voters of Trump’s alliance with the NRA and opposition to certain gun restrictions, believing it could motivate suburban parents worried about the next school shooting and minority communities that deal with daily gun violence. Trump’s position on guns is expected to become a “huge” part of this campaign in the coming months, one Biden official familiar with the strategy told CNN.

“Donald Trump is winning no new voters when he boasts about doing nothing about gun violence during his presidency. Period,” said Nick Suplina, a senior vice president at Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Suplina said Trump’s NRA appearance “shows that both the organization and the man are a bit desperate for each other. Trump needs the crowd, the NRA needs the political relevance.”

As with many issues, Trump’s stance on gun control has shifted throughout his decades in the public spotlight. Prior to running for office, Trump supported an assault weapons ban, but he backed away from that stance during his first presidential campaign.

After a gunman opened fire at a Parkland, Florida, high school in 2018, killing 17 students and staff, Trump appeared to briefly embrace a host of measures to restrict gun sales, only to quickly pivot again amid intense lobbying from the NRA.

Trump did address one concern of gun safety activists when his administration moved unilaterally to ban bump stocks, devices that enables a rifle to fire hundreds of rounds of ammunition per minute. The Supreme Court earlier this year heard oral arguments in a case seeking to overturn the Trump-era regulation.

“If President Trump regrets that decision, that’s something he should come out and say because gun owners are not going to forget that,” said Aidan Johnston, a lobbyist for the Gun Owners of America, an organization that has at times criticized the NRA for not being vigilant enough in pushing for fewer gun restrictions.

Trump’s relative inaction stood at the heart of the stark divisions that emerged between Biden and Trump over firearms during their 2020 race. Among both gun safety advocates and gun rights groups, there’s little disagreement about the stakes in 2024.

Johnston called Biden “perhaps the most anti-gun president in American history.” Suplina said the current commander-in-chief was “the strongest gun-sense president in history.”

Biden as president has championed new restrictions on firearms, including bipartisan passage in 2022 of the most comprehensive gun safety legislation in three decades – a sweeping bill to strengthen background checks. Biden has also created the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention and has issued a range of modest executive measures aimed at reducing gun violence.

Among them are new regulations on the makers of “ghost guns” kits, which allow people to build untraceable guns at home, requiring the same compliance with federal laws imposed on commercially sold firearms. If reelected, Biden has said he would continue to pursue a long-sought ban on the AR-15, the firearm linked to many of America’s deadliest mass shootings.

Trump in February vowed to undo any steps taken by Biden to regulate guns “my very first week back in office, perhaps my first day.” A top priority is halting a proposed rule from the Biden administration to bar hunters from using lead ammunition on certain federal lands.

“Firearm owners, gun manufacturers, and our beautiful 2A community know President Trump is the only one who has and will proudly stand for their Second Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution – which shall not be infringed,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said in a statement to CNN.

CNN’s Kristen Holmes and Alayna Treene contributed to this report.

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