Donald Trump, darling of the National Rifle Association, has custody of the Oval Office. The Republican-controlled Congress already has ditched one Obama-era rule to tighten access to guns. And an emboldened NRA has much more ambitious plans afoot for easing state and national gun laws as its annual convention unfolds this weekend in Atlanta.
But gun control advocates do not want your pity, thank you very much.
The groups that stand in opposition to looser gun laws say they are ready to rumble, as the NRA enjoys a post-election payoff moment Friday when Trump becomes the first president to appear at its convention since Ronald Reagan in 1983.
“We have become the David to the NRA’s Goliath,” says Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America following the 2012 shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut. The group is now part of Everytown for Gun Safety, which is backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg and is the largest organization fighting gun violence in the U.S.
“We feel much more invigorated because we know how important this is, given that Donald Trump is president” and the NRA spent more than $30 million to help him get there, says Watts.
Count on similar sentiments from other groups seeking tighter gun rules as the convention kicks off Friday.
“Actually, having lost any sense of control in Congress and in many states facing bills that are irresponsible allows us in the gun violence prevention movement to organize and provide resistance,” says David Chipman, a senior adviser to Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband after she was shot in the head in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson that left six people dead.
“Often times, it’s easier to get people engaged when there’s a fear of something bad happening,” says Chipman.
Likewise, Barack Obama’s presidency produced a spike in gun sales, and NRA memberships ticked up after the elections of Obama and Bill Clinton, amid fears of new restrictions on guns.
With Trump’s election, there’s no shortage of material to motivate gun control advocates.
After the Republican won the White House, NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre declared it time to “defeat the forces that have aligned against our freedom once and for all.” The NRA is pushing for federal legislation to make any state’s concealed-carry permits valid everywhere else, which opponents say would effectively turn the weakest gun standards in the nation into the law of the land. And the NRA is out to eliminate gun-free zones at schools and reduce state requirements for background checks, among other things.
In one early sign of the changed environment, the GOP-led Congress in February passed a resolution to block a rule that would have kept guns out of the hands of certain people with mental disorders, and Trump quickly signed it.
“There’s no doubt that the election of Donald Trump was a major setback for the gun control movement,” says Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and expert on gun policy. “Although President Obama was not able to get any new gun control legislation passed, under President Trump the NRA is going to be looking to loosen gun laws and is likely to succeed.”
Groups advocating tougher gun laws acknowledge there’s little prospect for them to make gains at the national level. But they point to increasing success in recent years in the states, where they have enacted a number of measures to require universal background checks and tighten access to guns for domestic abusers.
After too often looking for a knock-out punch that wasn’t attainable, the groups “finally took something out of the playbook of the other side that was quite successful” for the NRA, says Harry Wilson, a Roanoke College professor who has written extensively on gun politics.
With the NRA also notching state-level gains, the result is a patchwork of laws meaning that “when it comes to guns, red states are getting redder and blue states are getting bluer,” says Winkler, referring to states that are Republican and Democratic dominated respectively.
Everytown President John Feinblatt says a top priority for gun control groups right now is defeating NRA-backed efforts to enact a national “concealed-carry reciprocity” law that would require all states to recognize other states’ concealed carry permits. Gun control groups helped beat back such proposals in Congress in 2009, 2011 and 2013, and once again “we’re planning for this never to get to the president’s desk,” says Feinblatt.
The legislation is the chit that “the NRA wants the most from Donald Trump” after spending millions on his behalf, says Feinblatt.
As for Everytown, adds Feinblatt, “we’re building a counterweight to the gun lobby. Despite the popularly held belief that the NRA and the gun lobby is invincible and despite the popular belief that they speak for the people, actually, when there is a counterweight on the other side, the counterweight more often than not is going to win.”
Part of the challenge for those seeking tougher gun laws, though, is to make their message stand out when Trump opponents have so much they’re worried about. They’re concerned about health care, climate change, worker rights and so much more. Gun rights supporters, meanwhile, tend to be more passionate about gun policy as their make-or-break voting issue, polls show.
Watts says she wondered what would happen to the effort to tighten access to guns after Trump’s election but she says volunteers in “Moms Demand Action” T-shirts now number close to 50,000 and have become a familiar presence in statehouses around the nation, where the 5-million-member NRA once operated virtually unchallenged.
“People talk about this intensity gap all the time,” says Watts. “I don’t feel that. … I’m seeing us building to match an organization that’s been around for 30 years.”
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