A beaming Donald Trump stood before hundreds of National Rifle Association members at their annual meeting in Atlanta this past April. “You are my friends, believe me,” he said, as the crowd hooted and hollered for the first sitting president to appear at the NRA’s national convention in more than three decades.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in November, voters were overwhelmingly going to elect Hillary Clinton, easily the most pro-gun-control presidential candidate in history. When Clinton named Tim Kaine, another gun-control supporter, as her running mate, advocates were ecstatic. “This ticket clearly shows that there’s a sea change in the politics of this issue,” Mark Kelly told reporters before his prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention. Kelly is the former astronaut who co-founded the gun-control group Americans for Responsible Solutions with his wife, former Arizona representative Gabby Giffords, who was left with a severe brain injury after being shot in the head in an assassination attempt in 2011. They believed that the days when an assault-weapons ban by a Democratic president could cost his party its control of Congress, as happened with the Democrats under Bill Clinton, were over. “Clearly, it’s not 1994 anymore,” Kelly said.
No, it’s 2017, and a triumphant Donald Trump owes the NRA bigly: The organization spent over $30 million to get him elected, making it one of the biggest pro-Trump groups. And the payoff is coming. In his NRA speech, Trump announced “news that you’ve been waiting for a long time: The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”
Over the years, the NRA has steadily transformed itself from a calm advocate for hunters and sportsmen to a primal outlet for hard-right paranoia, and it’s long been treated carefully by Republican presidents. Though Ronald Reagan made a point of addressing the national convention, former president George H.W. Bush quit the NRA after the Oklahoma City bombing, when the group was seen as too close to the right-wing militia culture that produced Timothy McVeigh, and George W. Bush never showed up at the annual meeting as president.
Trump is an entirely different story. Not everyone in the pro-gun movement embraced him at the start of his campaign. When I interviewed gun-rights activists during the Republican primaries, the sober types—those who undertake the mission of expanding gun laws with the same zeal that Grover Norquist displays for cutting taxes—were distrustful of Trump, a longtime Manhattan resident with no policy record on guns, except for supporting an assault-weapons ban when he was flirting with a presidential run in 2000.