Donald Trump attempted to issue a rallying cry to Republicans with a wide-ranging political stump speech at the annual NRA meeting in Dallas on Friday, making clear he would fight November’s midterm elections with a staunch defense of gun rights.
“We cannot get complacent,” Trump said. “We have to win the midterms.”
Though hundreds of thousands of Americans marched for stricter gun laws after the Parkland school shooting, the only march that matters is “the march to the polls on election day”, a defiant Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice-president, told NRA members. He announced that the group now had “approaching 6 million active members”.
Election day 2018 is “the march for our freedom”, LaPierre said, to a roar of support from the audience. Less than two months ago, school shooting survivors organized hundreds of thousand of Americans at hundreds of protests across the country in what they called a March for Our Lives.
Though Republicans have majorities in both houses of Congress, Trump said that was not enough to pass the legislation he wanted. Increasing Republican representation in Congress in November’s midterm elections was essential.
Trump said he was warned earlier: “‘You know, going to the NRA convention and speaking today, that will be very controversial, it might not be popular.’ You know what I said? ‘Bye-bye, gotta get on the plane.’ You have to do the right thing.”
“We’re all fighting battles, but I love fighting these battles,” Trump said, to cheers, after a long description of what he called the “witch-hunt” of the investigation into Russian election interference and links between his campaign and Moscow.
An enthusiastic crowd repeatedly delivered standing ovations as Trump praised his policy accomplishments, and discussed low unemployment, his praise from Kanye West, and his negotiations with North Korea.
“Weakness gets you nuclear war,” Trump said, to cheers. “That’s what gets you nuclear war.”
Why is the National Rifle Association so powerful?
It’s not (just) about the money. In 2017, the NRA spent at least $4.1m on lobbying – more than the $3.1m it spent in all of 2016. But for comparison, the dairy industry has spent $4.4m in the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). The National Association of Realtors, one of the biggest spenders, has paid out $32.2m lobbying on housing issues.
The NRA has plenty of cash to spend. It bet big on the 2016 US elections, pouring $14.4m into supporting 44 candidates who won and $34.4m opposing 19 candidates who lost, according to CRP.
But “the real source of its power, I believe, comes from voters,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA professor of constitutional law.
The 145-year-old organization claims 5 million active members, that number is disputed, but whatever its actual size, membership is a powerful tool, said Robert Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland.
“They have a very powerful ability to mobilize a grassroots support and to engage in politics when most Americans can barely be bothered to vote,” he said. “And because so few Americans do those things, if you get a bunch of people in a locality who are all prepared to go out to a meeting they can have a big effect.” Read more
More than 70,000 NRA members were expected to attend the convention. But the event also drew protests, including one staged by Manuel Oliver, the father of one of the 17 people shot dead at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in February.
Before Trump’s speech – as the president told reporters on Air Force One he had attracted a “record crowd” – and after, NRA leaders expressed fear of such post-Parkland activism.
“What they really want is for you to be afraid to publicly associate with this organization,” Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, warned the auditorium early on Friday afternoon. “They don’t want you to go to a Friends of NRA dinner. They don’t want you wearing an NRA hat or putting an NRA sticker on your car or truck. In the face of their bitter hatred, there has never been a more critical time for us to stand tall.”
It was a strikingly defensive note for a leader of an organization that has played offense for years, railing against Democratic politicians, liberal billionaires and the Hollywood stars who advocate for gun control, even as it has succeeded in blocking any stricter federal gun laws.
LaPierre, the NRA’s brash leader for decades, also described the NRA as under attack in a new way.
“The fact that you’re all here means you must have missed the news. Haven’t you heard the NRA’s in big trouble? We’re finished? We’re on the run? We’re losing?” LaPierre asked the crowd.
“If we’re so dead, why are so many thousands of you here in this hall right now?”
Mike Pence and Wayne LaPierre applaud Trump’s speech. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
LaPierre claimed that the NRA’s membership had grown even as gun control advocates said they were attracting bigger groups of local activists after the Parkland shooting, and hundreds of thousands of protesters seeking gun control laws massed in Washington DC and across the country.
“The NRA’s membership is at an all-time high, approaching 6 million active members, and thousands more are joining every day,” LaPierre said. “We’re growing more powerful at a record rate.”
The gun rights group, which does not provide independent verification of its membership numbers, has previously claimed “more than 5 million members”.
“They gaslight tragedy,” LaPierre said of the NRA’s opponents, who now include grieving teenage survivors and parents of victims of a recent school shooting. “They exploit victims to advance their ultimate agenda: kill the NRA and napalm the second amendment right out of existence.”
On Friday, Trump greeted a cheering Texas crowd with a fond “we love you”. He made no reference to his previous remarks supporting gun control measures. “Your second amendment rights are under siege but they will never ever be under siege as long as I’m your president,” he said.
After Parkland, Trump suggested in a public meeting that he would support gun control measures. He also publicly warned lawmakers in early March that they should not be afraid of the NRA. “Some of you people are petrified of the NRA,” Trump said. “You can’t be petrified.”
Some gun rights supporters saw the remarks as a betrayal. After a private meeting a day later, Cox tweeted that the president and Vice-President Mike Pence did not in fact support gun control.
Gun control laws were futile, Trump argued, pointing to a terror attack carried out with guns in Paris, in a country with strict gun laws.
“You know what?” he asked. “We are going to have to outlaw immediately all vans and all trucks, which are now the new form of death for the maniac terrorists … so let’s ban immediately all trucks, all vans, maybe all cars. How about cars? Let’s not sell any more cars.”
Trump reiterated his support for arming teachers and hardening schools, although he said he was concerned about fortifying schools so intensely that even law enforcement officials might find it hard to get inside.
Pence, in his address, said more to acknowledge the toll of American gun violence.
“We live in a time when mass shootings have claimed hundreds of lives … shocking the conscience of our nation,” Pence said. “We will not rest and we will not relent until we end this evil in our time.”
But he also blamed the media for distorting the gun debate by focusing too much on a “few villains” rather than the “many heroes” who use their guns to prevent violence.
“Start telling the whole story to the American people about firearms in this country,” Pence said, to sustained applause. “We should be a nation that recognizes the people who save lives much more than the people who take them.”
He reassured NRA members that they were “one of the most potent forces for good in the United States of America”.
Trump echoed that line. “The people in this hall have never taken our freedom for granted,” he said, “and you have never stopped fighting for our beloved constitution. Incredible people, thank you.”
“One more time for the media who thinks we’re down and out,” Cox said to the cheering crowd as Trump left the stage, and they roared.