Republicans Divided in Responses to Gun Proposals

Republicans Divided in Responses to Gun Proposals
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Republicans Divided in Responses to Gun Proposals
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Republicans are diverging in their responses to the shooting at a Florida high school earlier this month, with some expressing a new openness to certain restrictive gun measures, others pushing to allow teachers to carry firearms or to further secure schools, and the most ardent conservatives digging in and pushing back against any efforts to create new gun laws.

The varied responses come as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have passionately  pushed for action after a shooter killed 17 classmates and staff there, giving hope to gun control advocates that there is more energy and support for their agenda than ever before.

President Trump called for action multiple times last week, backing stronger background checks, raising the minimum age  for purchasing rifles, and increasing security at schools. Though he has not endorsed any specific legislative proposals or said what he would present to Congress, Trump’s engagement has left gun rights groups concerned, wary of any new measures that they say would infringe on  Second Amendment rights.

“We would hope the president would listen to some advisers who actually care about the Constitution, because apparently someone is advising him who doesn’t,” said Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, which has 4.5 million members. “The blogosphere is exploding with comments about the president from his base. 'Betrayal' is a very difficult word to use a few days ago and many people are using it now.”

“There is no doubt we’re worried and we’re doing everything we can to stop it,” Brown said. “Any time there is a valid assault on Second Amendment rights, you usually see an uptick in activism, and this is certainly no exception.”

Yet there have been signals that the politics could be shifting on the issue. On Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has received an A+ rating from the NRA, introduced a proposal that the group opposes: to raise the age limit to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21.

That proposal is part of a package that also includes new funding for mental health programs and having a trained security officer for every 1,000 students at any Florida school. But gun rights groups oppose raising the age threshold, arguing it would take constitutional rights away from adults. But Scott’s new position aligns with Trump, who supports the age limit change, raising the possibility that the president’s engagement could provide political cover for his allies.

In his address to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference Friday, the president attempted to quell some of the gun lobby’s concerns, reiterating his support for the NRA a day after its leadership addressed the conference.

“There's nobody that loves the Second Amendment more than I do, and there's nobody that respects the NRA -- they're friends of mine,” Trump said. “They've backed us all. They're great people. They're patriots.”

But he followed that up by expressing his support to “really strengthen up background checks.” He did not elaborate on whether that meant expanding checks or improving the current system. He also did not mention some of the other proposals he has floated in recent days -- notably, increasing the age limit for purchasing assault rifles, which the NRA opposes.

His strongest emphasis in the speech was on increasing security at schools, something most gun rights advocates support. In an echo of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre’s speech to the gathering a day earlier, Trump lamented that security at schools did not match that at banks, airports or government buildings. He emphasized his support for allowing teachers and other school officials with concealed-carry permits to bring their firearms into schools, which he said would be a major deterrent.

“A teacher would have shot the hell out of him before he knew what happened,” Trump said of the Florida shooter.

But arming teachers is a controversial proposal that divides even the GOP. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said during a contentious CNN town-hall event last week that he doesn’t support allowing teachers to carry guns in schools. A CBS News poll released Friday showed 50 percent of Americans oppose allowing teachers to carry guns – though more than two-thirds of Republicans support it.

Dave Paramore, a police officer from Greenville, S.C., who attended CPAC, said he supports allowing some teachers to carry firearms as a deterrent, but added that there would have to be careful screening about which ones were qualified to do so.

“You’ve got to look at the motive behind some of these teachers, because not everybody should carry a firearm,” Paramore said.

On some of the other proposals Trump floated, however, there were signs that his base of support might be willing to accept new restrictive measures. Multiple attendees, including Paramore, said they want to ban bump stocks, the device used in the Las Vegas mass shooting that converts a semi-automatic rifle into a fully automatic one. Some also support the proposal floated by Trump on Twitter last week to raise the age limit for purchasing assault rifles to 21. Terre Kroeger, 55, from Maumee, Ohio, is a member of the NRA and has a concealed-carry permit, but went even a step further than Trump, saying she would support raising the minimum age for purchasing assault rifles to 25.

“I don’t believe in banning them, but I believe you should be older to get them,” Kroeger said. “I really think you should be 21 to get a gun, but that’s just my opinion. People are too young and stupid when they’re 17, 18 years old.”

But even as they appeared open to certain proposals on guns, some attendees were upset with student responses following the Florida shooting. Linda Carmack, 60, a homemaker from Frederick, Md., said she was frustrated that the NRA had been attacked after the massacre.

“It’s not the NRA’s fault, and I’m really sorry that the students from that school feel like it’s the NRA’s fault,” Carmack said. “That’s the information they’ve been given. … The NRA is not for this. Conservatives are not for school shooting.”

Kroeger was equally frustrated by what she viewed as gun control advocates taking advantage of the students and the circumstances of the shooting.

“Every shooting, it’s just snowballing more and more,” she said. “I really feel like people are really going to start pushing. But I really feel like the NRA people and people that support the Second Amendment are going to push right back.”

However, even some Republican lawmakers have shifted their positions on the gun issue. During the CNN event, Rubio said he would support banning high-capacity magazines and raising the age limit to purchase rifles. Sen. Pat Roberts said no one under 21 should have an AR-15 assault rifle. And Rep. Brian Mast -- an Army veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan, is an NRA member and who represents an area near the Parkland shooting – wrote in the New York Times Friday that he would support banning assault rifles, if the term is specifically defined.

“I cannot support the primary weapon I used to defend our people being used to kill children I swore to defend,” Mast (pictured) wrote in the column, where he also signaled support for universal background checks.

Such GOP shifts, along with the outside activism building from gun control advocates, have gun rights groups digging in.

“You should be anxious and you should be frightened,” LaPierre told CPAC on Thursday, arguing that if Democrats win back control in Washington, “the first to go will be the Second Amendment."

“My job is to be faithful to the members who demand one simple thing, which is do not compromise on this,” Brown, of the National Association for Gun Rights, said. “And no amount of foot-stomping from Tide-pod-eating, non-voting teenagers is going to change that.”

Dave Workman, senior editor for GunMag, a publication of the Second Amendment Foundation, says he’s also seen feelings of betrayal among gun owners. “If the gun rights community feels threatened, believe me, they are going to come out the woodwork and start voting like they did two years ago,” Workman said. “To a lot of gun owners out there, this is the quintessential slippery-slope scenario.”  

LaPierre’s CPAC speech was “textbook NRA,” Workman said. “They dig in when they perceive a threat. They’re good at it. We have seen almost a remarkable tidal wave of media attention, especially when the high school kids have gotten involved, that is not being ignored on Capitol Hill.”  

The defensiveness from gun rights supporters was an undercurrent at CPAC, with some attendees saying they noticed more organization and more energy from the other side than after previous shootings. Kroeger, the Ohio NRA member, was frustrated by what she viewed as gun control advocates taking advantage of the students and the circumstances of the shooting.

“Every shooting, it’s just snowballing more and more,” she said. “I really feel like people are really going to start pushing. But I really feel like the NRA people and people that support the Second Amendment are going to push right back.”

Workman noted that pushback to similar measures has happened in the past. The 1994 GOP wave election, he said, took place after President Clinton signed the assault weapons ban into law. “When you really fire them up, they will really turn out,” Workman said of gun owners.  

Other gun rights groups say that while they are disappointed in the president backing some proposals they disagree with, there is support for others. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a lobbying group in Newtown, Conn. -- site of the 2012 elementary school massacre -- has long advocated for fixes to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. “It does demonstrate there can be common ground on real effective solutions to address these issue,” Lawrence Keene, the group’s senior vice president for government and public affairs, said of bipartisan support for the Fix NICS bill before Congress.  

But activists are also arguing that culpability for the Florida shooting is multi-faceted. “There were warning signs everywhere. The FBI failed the citizens of Parkland. The Broward County Sheriff's office failed the citizens of Parkland,” said Keene. “This tragedy did not need to happen.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurns.

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