As President Donald Trump talked this week about banning “bump stocks” and curbing young people’s access to guns, the gun owners and advocates who helped propel his political rise talked about desertion and betrayal.
Trump’s flirtation with a set of modest gun control measures drew swift condemnation from gun groups, hunters and sportsmen who banked on the president to be a stalwart opponent to any new gun restrictions. In his pledge to make schools safer and curb gun violence after the massacre at a Florida high school, gun advocates see a weakening resolve from the man they voted for in droves and spent millions to elect.
“Out in the firearms community there is a great feeling of betrayal and abandonment, because of the support he was given in his campaign for president,” Tony Fabian, president of the Colorado Sports Shooting Association, said Friday.
The comments highlight how little room the president and his party have to maneuver without angering and activating the politically powerful gun rights community. Trump has not yet formally proposed any legislative plan and he spent much of the week endorsing the notion of arming teachers and school officials – a plan the gun lobby supports. Still, just floating proposals that defy the National Rifle Association and other groups drew threats of political retribution and legal action.
The confrontation is set to test whether Trump, a figure deeply popular with his party’s base, is willing to risk his political capital to take on a constituency few Republicans have challenged.
“The president has a unique ability right now to maybe really do something about these school shootings,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican from Florida. “Nobody is more popular in my district – and I know in a lot of other people’s districts – than Donald Trump. He’s more popular than the NRA. … So it’s up to him whether or not anything happens with guns.”
After 17 people were killed by a teenager, Trump declared that assault rifles should be kept out of the hands of anyone under 21. He endorsed more stringent background checks for gun buyers, and ordered his Justice Department to work toward banning rapid-fire “bump stock” devices.
Gun Owners of America issued an alert earlier this week urging its 1.5 million members to call the White House and “Tell Trump to OPPOSE All Gun Control!” The organization said anti-gun activists aided by congressional Democrats are trying to convince the president he should “support their disastrous gun control efforts,” the message said. “And sadly, it may be working.”
Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for the Virginia-based group, said the organization doesn’t hesitate to oppose Republican incumbents and candidates whom it deems not sufficiently “pro-gun.” Motivating gun owners to go to the polls – not campaign funding – is the source of the gun lobby’s strength, according to Hammond.
“When they feel gun ownership is threatened, then they’re going to respond as if that’s the pre-eminent issue,” he said.
Paul Paradis, who owns a gun store in Colorado Springs, was enthusiastic about letting teachers carry firearms on campus. But he was incredulous about the notion of outlawing bump stocks and increasing the age requirement for buying a long gun.
“Trump can propose anything he wants but it’s got to get through two houses of Congress and the Supreme Court,” Paradis said.
Colorado has been a test case for the politics of gun control and the ability of gun groups to retaliate against those who vote for it. In 2013, after the Aurora theater shooting was followed by the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, Colorado’s Democrat-controlled state legislature passed a package of gun restrictions, including universal background checks and a ban on magazines that hold more than 15 bullets.
Gun control advocates hoped to roll the program out to other states after showing a libertarian, Western state could pass the bills. But then the NRA backed successful recalls of two Democratic state lawmakers who backed the legislation. The momentum ended.
Democrats won back those seats in the 2016 election. Still, the message has lingered: Democrats have not proposed any major gun legislation since the recalls.
There are an estimated 55 million gun owners in the United States, according to a 2016 national survey conducted by Northeastern and Harvard universities.
The influential National Rifle Association, which spent about $30 million in support of Trump’s presidential campaign, is firmly opposed to raising the legal age for the purchase of long guns from 18 to 21. After floating the idea earlier in the week, Trump declined to reiterate his proposal to increase age restrictions during wide-ranging remarks Friday before the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Trump’s call to restrict bump stocks like the ones used in last year’s Las Vegas massacre triggered outrage among gun owners. The devices allow a shooter’s semi-automatic rifle to mimic a machine gun. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is conducting a review to determine if it can regulate bump stocks without action from Congress.
But several gun rights advocates said the answer is an unequivocal no. Only Congress has the power to make such a move. ATF has received thousands of comments as part of the review and many are from gun owners who see potential regulation as a slippery slope that will lead to administrative bans on triggers, magazines and even firearms themselves.
“If there was an art of the deal, then this would be a deal breaker,” said Brandon Combs, president of the California-based Firearms Policy Coalition, making a reference to the title of Trump’s 1987 book on business. The coalition said in a statement Tuesday that it would take legal action if necessary to resist Trump’s “outrageous lawlessness.”
“Gun owners have been burned too many times over the years,” Combs said. “Politicians do whatever they want when they get into office.”