Everything and nothing has changed since the last time President Donald Trump addressed the National Rifle Association convention.
Trump returns to the powerful lobby group’s gathering Friday with national gun politics evolving after recent massacres but with the status quo of federal gun laws largely intact.
Last year, Trump’s visit to the NRA was a hero’s homecoming after the group helped put him in the White House following his unequivocally pro-Second Amendment campaign.
“You came through for me and I am going to come through for you,” Trump told thousands of gun rights activists at last year’s convention in Atlanta.
This time, Trump is more of a supplicant, needing vigorous turnout from pro-gun voters to offset what many Republicans fear could be a midterm election disaster in November.
The President is likely to highlight his staunch support for the Second Amendment and modest steps he has taken, under intense political heat, on gun safety this year.
Since he will be in a friendly crowd, there’s no guarantee he will stick to gun issues: In such company, Trump is prone to wander off into monologues of political red meat – from touting the confirmation of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch to the potential success of his North Korea policy.
But even a welcoming space such as the NRA convention may bring a subliminal reminder of the cloud that has haunted him since his earliest days in the White House: allegations of election collusion with Russia.
The group is bracing for fresh scrutiny over its finances following allegations that a lifetime member and Russian government official, Alexander Torshin, had funneled money through the NRA to bolster the Trump campaign in 2016.
CNN’s Sara Murray reported exclusively last week that the NRA is preserving years of documents related to the Kremlin-linked banker ahead of a possible investigation. The NRA declined to comment on the report.
Surge of activism
Whatever the President says in Dallas on Friday, Democrats are increasingly optimistic that their days of being pummeled on gun politics in state and national elections may be in the past.
Advocates of restrictions on guns point to a changed political environment after the surge of teenager-led activism that followed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, which killed 17 people.
“I think the most dramatic shift has indeed happened post-Parkland,” said Isabelle James, political director of the gun safety group Americans for Responsible Solutions, which was launched by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. The Arizona Democrat survived a mass shooting in 2011.
James said that many voters are beginning to connect the inability of Congress to act after horrific tragedies afflicting American kids with the influence of the gun lobby.
Dana Loesch, the spokeswoman for the NRA, sought to offer constructive solutions after the massacre, reinforcing the NRA’s position that mentally ill people should not have access to firearms.
“I don’t believe this insane monster should have ever been able to obtain a firearm,” Loesch said in the wake of Parkland. “We have to start … following up on red flags.”
During a searing CNN town hall event in Florida in February, Sen. Marco Rubio, a staunch NRA backer, earned some plaudits for facing a passionate, largely hostile crowd thoughtfully, while still making his pro-gun case.
“The positions I hold on these issues of the Second Amendment, I’ve held since the day I entered office in the city of West Miami as an elected official,” the Florida Republican said when asked about NRA donations to his campaign. “People buy into my agenda, and I do support the Second Amendment.”
’We have to fight them every once in a while’
Trump will also be appearing before NRA members for the first time since he chided Republicans who he said were scared of the lobby group and vowed to fight it if necessary.
He made his remarks in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, when he was under crushing political pressure to act on gun laws.
“Half of you are so afraid of the NRA. … You know what, if they’re not with you, we have to fight them every once in a while,” the President said back in February.
His remarks raised some hopes that a Republican President could break the stranglehold that the NRA exerts over his party.
Then, in a surreal meeting with lawmakers at the White House, Trump proposed a comprehensive gun safety bill and vowed that, unlike his predecessors, he would enact change.
“It’s time that a President stepped up and we haven’t had them,” Trump said.
But despite promises to raise the age for long-gun purchases from 18 to 21 and improvements in the background check system, his efforts largely fizzled.
Trump’s eventual formal proposals largely met the approval of the NRA, a group that spent $30 million to help him win the White House, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and seemed as much under its sway as other Republicans.
Congress did pass legislation to improve compliance and reporting on background checks and allocated more money for school safety. But the measures were modest and did not fundamentally change the nation’s guns laws.
Trump also ordered the Justice Department to issue regulations to ban bump fire stocks, which convert semiautomatic weapons into rapid-firing rifles like the ones used in the massacre of concertgoers last year in Las Vegas.
The President set up a commission to consider other measures – a move seen by many advocates of gun restrictions as a way of putting them aside. Significant changes to background checks, age restrictions and bump stock restrictions have passed in states like Florida, Oregon and Vermont this year.
Polling also suggests that guns could begin to be almost as much a motivating factor for liberal voters as they have long been for Second Amendment conservatives.
A March Quinnipiac survey, for instance, showed that 61% of voters wanted the President to do more to reduce gun violence, while 68% also wanted Congress to do more.
It’s data like that, as well as the evidence of activism stirring in the states, that makes advocates of restrictions confident that Trump’s visit to the NRA could fire up Democratic voters as much as it motivates Trump’s Republican base.
“We have always known that the gun safety movement has the numbers on our side in terms of the policy support and it was just that intensity gap. I absolutely think that is starting to close,” said James, citing the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in “March for Our Lives” events across the US in March.