Nothing laid bare the disjointed state of gun politics in America as starkly as the call and response in Texas this week. On Tuesday, it was a school shooting. Days later, Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans will appear at a gathering of the NRA.
The Memorial Day weekend event is being billed by the National Rifle Association as a showcase of more than 14 acres of “the latest guns and gear,” with a “powerhouse lineup of political speakers.” On his social media platform, Truth Social, Trump confirmed on Wednesday he will appear.
That should never have been in doubt. Despite being weakened by financial difficulties and infighting, the National Rifle Association’s membership is a critical constituency to conservative politicians, and the event in Houston — less than 300 miles from the site of the mass shooting in Uvalde — a measure of its longstanding ties to the GOP.
The timing was inconsequential.
“Fuck them,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. “Fuck all of them. Our kids are dying in record numbers, and it is because of them.”
Just more than a year ago, after back-to-back shootings in Georgia and in Boulder, Colo., temporarily reignited the gun control debate, proponents of stricter gun laws sensed an uncommon opening. The NRA was in turmoil, Democrats had gained control of the White House and both houses of Congress, and public polling — including widespread support for background checks — was on their side.
But if the first 16 months of Joe Biden’s presidency demonstrated anything, it was the limitations of Democrats’ razor-thin majority. Gun legislation has stalled, and Republicans heading into the midterms have every incentive to court the NRA.
“The gun issue is a perennial issue that’s not going away, whether there’s a mass shooting or not,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist working on House campaigns across the country. “And the folks that feel strongly on the right about the Second Amendment, while their heart clearly aches, they also are deeply concerned about their safety, their family’s safety, and the rhetoric of the left immediately jumping to their worst fear, which is seizing guns and gun control.
“It’s an issue,” he added, “that the base needs to be reassured and spoken to [about] — that they’re not going to get their guns taken away.”
After the shooting in Uvalde, gun control activists were preparing to once again stage demonstrations in Washington. At the Capitol, Democrats and some Republicans were once again engaging in gun safety negotiations. And though the idea of congressional action still appeared to be a long shot, the issue was already erupting in the midterm campaigns.
In Texas, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat seeking to unseat Gov. Greg Abbott, confronted Abbott at a press conference where Abbott cast mental health — not gun proliferation — as the cause of the tragedy.
“Governor Abbott, I have to say something,” O’Rourke said, before being escorted out by security. “The time to stop the next shooting is right now and you are doing nothing.”
It’s unclear whether Abbott, who had been scheduled to attend the NRA conference, still will. An adviser said Wednesday that “everyone is focused on Uvalde today.”
But Trump is going. A spokesperson for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem first confirmed to POLITICO that she still intends to speak at the NRA event. And two Republicans who have pulled out of the event did not point to the school shooting as their reason.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) will not attend the conference because he is still on a trip to Ukraine. Justin Discigil, a spokesperson for the Texas Republican, told POLITICO that Crenshaw alerted NRA organizers before the shooting tragedy that his flight back from Ukraine wouldn’t get him stateside until after the event.
A spokesperson for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), another slated NRA convention speaker, said the lawmaker had already notified the gun group he would not be attending.
“Prior to the tragedy today in Uvalde we had already informed the NRA he would not be able to speak due to [an] unexpected change in his schedule,” Cornyn spokesperson Drew Brandewie said. “He now has to be in D.C. for personal reasons on Friday.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) did not immediately respond to a request for comment about his plans. But Cruz has hardly shrunk from the tragedy, accusing Democrats and the media of politicizing it.
“Inevitably, when there’s a murderer of this kind, you see politicians try to politicize it, you see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Cruz told reporters. “That doesn’t work, that doesn’t prevent crime.”
The NRA said in a statement that “as we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”
For years, Republicans have viewed the politics around gun control as favorable to them for two reasons: Gun safety rarely rose to the top of voters’ minds as an issue and, when it did, they had single-issue Second Amendment voters on their side. But that may be changing. In 2018, gun control advocates spent heavily in the midterm elections, claiming several victories in congressional swing districts. Public polling reflects widespread support for background checks and other gun measures.
“The public has been moving away from the NRA position and towards sensible gun safety legislation for 20 years now,” said Frank Luntz, the veteran Republican consultant and pollster. “This tragedy will push people further and faster.”
For Democrats, the shift in public attention to gun violence came as a rare opening in an otherwise bleak midterm election landscape. In battleground states, they are already hammering on Republicans’ record on guns.
“There are senators who the gun lobby has a stranglehold on, and we have to release that finger by finger,” said Shannon Watts, founder of the advocacy group Moms Demand Action.
Calling the effort to enact stricter gun laws “a marathon, not a sprint,” she said she is still hopeful for congressional action, but that, “If that doesn’t happen, we go harder, and we remind every single voter where these lawmakers stand in November.”
In addition to the frequency of mass shootings in America — the Texas school shooting followed the supermarket shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., by just more than a week — the Supreme Court this summer may force the gun debate further into the mix of midterm campaigns. This summer, the court is expected to rule on a closely watched case on gun restrictions in New York.
“Gun issues are not going away, and given what may happen in the Supreme Court the next few weeks, the situation is not going to get better,” said Mathew Littman, a Democratic strategist and executive director of the gun reform group 97 Percent. “I do believe gun issues are going to be paramount for a lot of voters.”
Still, Littman, a former Biden speechwriter, cast the lack of movement on gun restrictions as “incredibly frustrating.”
“The culture of death in this country,” he said. “A million people die from Covid … Kids getting shot in schools. …
“What can we be doing differently,” he said, “so that we do not accept all of this death. It’s a very unique thing, and it doesn’t have to be.”
— Kelly Hooper contributed to this report