The White House has confirmed that President Donald Trump will be addressing the National Rifle Association convention taking place this weekend, as will Vice President Mike Pence, joining Diamond and Silk on the already star-studded speaker’s list. While Trump has appeared at NRA conventions before, he comes before them at a moment of greater risk for himself and the gun rights group.
And this time, Trump will probably hurt their cause more than help it. It’s unlikely that Trump’s speech itself will produce something significant, because we’ve seen so many of these before. He arrives with a prepared speech paying tribute to his audience and their issue, then proceeds to ramble on for an hour about his great electoral college victory, the dishonest news media, the phony Russia investigation, and whichever liberal happens to be annoying him that week (look out, Michelle Wolf!). That’s how his speech to the NRA last year went.
But the context is different this year. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, the politics of guns have shifted in one critical way: Democrats are no longer afraid of the issue. The idea that the NRA wields terrifying power before which every politician of any party must bow has been punctured, more Democratic candidates are talking openly about new gun control measures, and liberal organizing on the issue has increased significantly.
One of Trump’s goals in coming to the NRA convention is to convince gun voters - that subset of gun owners for whom gun rights are the most important issue of all - that they must vote in November. The message is not just that if Democrats are elected then Nancy Pelosi will personally come to your house, take away your guns, and then invite marauding gangs of minorities/immigrants/terrorists to kill you and defile your women, because every speaker at the convention will say that (not quite literally, though Wayne LaPierre might). It’s that loyalty to Trump himself demands that you vote and work to make sure Republicans win.
But there’s a problem. For a couple of decades now, the assumption has been that while those who favor more restrictions on guns only see it as one of many issues they care about, the gun rights side is full of highly motivated activists for whom guns are the only issue. Even if the second group is smaller in number, their intensity gives them outsize power.
That may no longer be true. Recent polls have shown those favoring restrictions are more motivated than those favoring gun rights. In a recent NPR/PBS/Marist College poll, 60 percent of voters said they would definitely vote for a candidate who wants stricter gun laws, while 33 percent said they’d definitely vote against such a candidate. Fifty-three percent of Democrats said a candidate’s position on guns will be a major factor in how they’ll vote, compared to only 44 percent of Republicans. CNN polling has also shown something similar.
The figure for Democrats is actually lower than it was right after Parkland, and it could change in the next few months depending on how many mass shootings we have (we’ll have some, of course, because we never go more than a few weeks without one). But the NRA’s longstanding effort to make guns an issue of cultural identity, as fruitful as it has been, can be a long-term problem as the population of that culture gets smaller relative to the other side’s culture. Perhaps more than ever before, liberals are seeing a belief in limits on guns as part of their cultural identity - which is only reinforced when the president they despise reminds them of his love for the NRA.
Gun advocates face another problem: the complacency that sets in on the right when there’s a Republican in the White House, which gets to a paradox within which the NRA always exists. The organization and its patrons in the gun industry never do better than when their allies are out of power and they can cry “They’re coming for your guns!” But when there’s a Republican in the White House, only the most gullible gun nuts believe it. Since Trump was elected, the industry has experienced what some call a “Trump slump,” a dramatic slowdown in gun sales. As of yet, we don’t see signs that the aftermath of the Parkland shooting and the dramatic increase in liberal activism has convinced gun owners that they need to be afraid of sweeping new laws.
When Trump goes to the NRA and his speech is reported in every news outlet, it could have more of a motivating effect on liberals than on conservatives. Especially if Trump takes shots at the Russia investigation - and really, do you think he’ll be able to help himself? - it would give news organizations the opportunity to write more about the intriguing Russia-NRA connection. You’ll recall that in January, we learned that the FBI was investigating whether a Russian banker with close ties to both the NRA and Vladimir Putin used the NRA to funnel money to the Trump campaign. This past Friday, CNN reported that the NRA “is setting aside years of documents related to its interactions with a Kremlin-linked banker, as the gun-rights group appears to be bracing for a possible investigation.”
At another time, Trump could have gone to the NRA secure in the knowledge that doing so would help rile up his base without having to worry too much about what kind of negative media coverage it would produce and what effect it would have on his opponents. But this year, it will likely only bring him more headaches, and serve to excite those voters eager to send him a message by voting Republicans out of office.
Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog.