In the aftermath of a high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, President Donald Trump is urging the country and Congress to act.
But, pushing the boundaries of conservative orthodoxy on something as fundamental to the Republican Party as the Second Amendment has the potential to reveal schisms between Trump and the base that elected him.
At the Conservative Political Action Committee, where the President is scheduled to speak Friday morning, voters appeared ready to follow Trump’s lead.
“I think everything he’s talking about is reasonable,” said Sal DiCiccio, a CPAC attendee and a member of the Phoenix city council. “At the end of the day, you don’t want crazy people carrying guns. I think they ought to be looking at that. I don’t know how they’ll get there … it’s going to require breaking barriers down on all sides.”
Despite Trump’s past positions on guns, conservatives at CPAC say that they were confident Trump would not infringe on the rights they hold dear. Most of what Trump had proposed – raising the age limits on purchasers of rifles from 18 to 21, tightening background checks and banning the sale of bump stocks – sits at the fringes of the gun debate, they argue, far from the kinds of more robust measures Congress voted on just five years ago in the wake of Sandy Hook.
“I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue - I hope!,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning.
At CPAC, most conservatives have trust in their Republican President that they never had in Democratic President Barack Obama, who campaigned after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School to ban assault-style weapons and limit high-capacity magazines.
“I think the Second Amendment is a really important thing and I hate to see it tampered with too much, but I understand,” 69-year-old Marleia Sire said as she began tearing up talking about the recent shooting. “It’s just like, it happens over and over and over again. … I am in favor of the background checks. Maybe raising the age to 21.”
If Obama further polarized Republicans on the gun issue, Trump – who once said he could back an assault weapons ban in a 2000 book titled “The America We Deserve” – has the conservative credentials that could make him uniquely situated to tackle reforms that were once seen as a dangerous infringement of Second Amendment rights.
“Even though he had liberal tendencies, his Cabinet has been able to keep him in check and the Congress has been able to hold him to a standard as well as his base,” said Kurt Schenher, a 21-year- old student at the University of Connecticut. “I’m not worried he’ll go too far.”
At a moment when the country is reeling from yet another school shooting, many Trump supporters at CPAC sympathized that the President was under a unique set of pressures to take on at least a modest gun proposal.
Taylor DuVall, a student at the University of Wilmington, said that at this point, “each side needs to give a little bit.”
“I think it starts with making sure that every person who has a gun is entered in that system,” she said referencing background checks and her belief that states need to improve their input of the records.
In recent days, Trump has been faced with the kinds of moments that no campaign can prepare a politician for. He met with parents and students, law enforcement and victims from Parkland. And over the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump heard from guests grappling with what to do in the wake of the tragedy.
But Trump isn’t the only Republican opening the door to changing gun laws in America. On Wednesday night, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said he was reconsidering his past opposition to limiting high-capacity magazines. And, Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, announced he is introducing legislation to raise the age at which a person can buy certain kinds of rifles like AR-15s from 18 to 21.
At CPAC – an event that usually displays a wide range of views in election years – there was little daylight that could be seen between Trump and the powerful NRA. During his speech Thursday morning, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre, didn’t address Trump’s latest statements on guns even though the NRA has said they are opposed to raising the age limits on rifle purchases from 18 to 21.
Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, told the Kansas City Star on Thursday that he thought “we’re ready as a Congress to actually pass something and I think it’s going to be better background checks. Certainly nobody under 21 should have an AR-15.”
Over and over again, attendees at CPAC – many of them students – argued that they wanted to see more security in schools, but few seemed to be worried that Trump was abandoning the GOP’s key principles on the Second Amendment.
“I would probably echo the sentiments of what Wayne LaPierre said this morning, which was that we don’t need more background checks, we just need to make sure our background check system is working and that what we are looking for is effective,” said Cassandra Stecker, a 17-year-old attendee at CPAC. “I think that the President has been a little bit vague about whether he’s going to have just more or better background checks, but if he wants better background checks, I don’t see a problem with that at all.”
The President said Thursday afternoon that he wasn’t looking to engage in a political fight with the NRA. Instead, he held out hope they could work together.
“I don’t think I’ll be going up against them. They’re going to do what’s right. They’re very close to me. I’m close to them. The NRA wants to do the right thing,” Trump said. “I’ve spoken to them often in the last two days. It’s not a battle – I think the NRA wants to do the right thing.”