PROMISES, PROMISES

Red State Republicans Ready to Take Aim at Gun Control

Trump promised the NRA he would never let it down—and he and Republican lawmakers have been quietly going about the work of living up to that pledge.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

In May 2016, the National Rifle Association gave Donald Trump an early, and critical, vote of confidence by endorsing his presidential bid while other conservative groups were still plotting to overthrow him. The NRA stood by Trump throughout the tumultuous campaign and spent $30 million to help get him elected. In turn, Trump vowed to the gun lobby’s members that he would never let them down. “Remember that,” he said.

In the three months since his inauguration, while the media focused on Trump’s Twitter feed like Moses’s tablets and covered staff rivalries like a series of palace coups, the president and Republican lawmakers have quietly gone about the work of living up to his promise to the NRA. For gun-rights groups, this is the moment they’ve been waiting for. For gun-safety advocates, it’s a dangerous new normal in Washington and state legislatures across the country.

“The NRA was the largest investor in Donald Trump’s campaign and they are looking for a return on that investment,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun-safety group she founded after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. “We’re starting to see that at the federal level, certainly.”

Other gun-safety groups said they’d also seen a significant shift in gun-related legislation since Trump was elected.

“There’s definitely a noticeable difference. The climate has changed here in Washington pretty dramatically now that Republicans control both chambers and the White House,” said Robin Lloyd, director of government affairs for Americans for Responsible for Solutions. “We definitely have seen a shift toward a much more defensive posture, but we’re still actively working to support bipartisan bills that are going to strengthen our gun laws.”

Broadly bipartisan gun-related measures have been the exception on Capitol Hill this year. Much more common have been bills favored by the NRA and large majorities of Republicans—bills that would have had no chance of passing under President Barack Obama.

In February, Trump signed a measure that rolled back an Obama-era rule to stop people who were labeled by the Social Security Administration as mentally incompetent from buying a weapon. The House also passed a rollback for a similar Obama rule meant to keep veterans, deemed by the VA as a danger to themselves or others, from weapons purchases. Gun-rights and disability groups argued that neither of the original rules would give due process to the people involved, but Democrats said they would keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

But it’s a federal bill currently waiting for Congressional action that has gun-safety groups most concerned. The proposed bill would grant “concealed carry reciprocity” to people traveling outside of their home states with their weapons, even in states with stricter gun laws, and would allow for the least restrictive standard to apply.

Another NRA priority, the “Hearing Protection Act,” sponsored by Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, would drastically cut the federal requirements for buying a silencer. That measure has 130 Republican co-sponsors and even won an endorsement from Donald Trump Jr., an avid hunter. Trump Jr. visited a silencer company in Utah during the campaign and told the CEO that cutting regulations on silencers was “about a health issue, frankly.”

For every gun-related measure at the federal level, dozens have been introduced across the country in state legislatures across the country. Kris Brown, the chief strategy officer for the Brady Campaign to prevent gun violence, said she’s seen the same increase at the state level as at the federal level. “There’s definitely an uptick in the activity,” she said. “They feel emboldened by the guy that they paid for to be in the White House.”

Brown said similar bills often show up in different states, with nearly identical language, a sign of the national campaign that’s happening. “This isn’t just random,” she said. “It’s part of a larger effort in the corporate gun industry.”

Among the trends Brown and others said they’ve seen in states this year are a continuation of effort to allow guns on public or private college campuses, bills to limit or completely repeal restrictions on guns in public places, and a concerted effort to expand “permitless carry,” which would eliminate any requirement that a person have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Twelve states, including Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, and Vermont, already have no requirement for residents to have a permit to carry a concealed gun. Brown also noted that Florida legislators are considering a law to change the burden of proof required to use the “stand your ground” law as a defense in a shooting.

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One unexpected result of the flurry of bills being introduced is that some of the most aggressive bills loosening gun restrictions have been defeated, even in states with Republican legislatures or Republican governors. Bills to allow guns in K-12 schools failed in North Dakota and Kentucky this year, as did permitless-carry measures in Utah, South Dakota, and Montana. A campus carry bill was also defeated in Wyoming.

Despite the election, or maybe because of it, Shannon Watts from Moms Demand Action said that just as legislative activity has increased, her group has also seen an exponential increase in volunteers in states across the country since November. “What’s different is the momentum on our side,” she said. “A lot of people came off the sidelines after the election.”