Dallas (AFP) – US President Donald Trump rallied gun owners in Texas Friday, summarily rejecting calls for stricter laws despite a high school massacre in Florida that fuelled public demands for change.
Making a pilgrimage to the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Dallas, Trump tackled head-on the controversy over his visit, which comes three months after a classroom bloodbath that shocked the world.
Political advisors, he said, had told him not to go, to which he responded “bye, bye, got to get on a plane,” prompting extended cheers.
“We have to do the right thing,” he said.
It is the second year running that Trump has addressed the gun-toting, hat-waving jamboree, but the first time since the school massacre in Parkland, Florida.
Trump made only brief allusion to the February 14 high school rampage in Parkland, signaling a return to politics as normal, as his Republicans head into sharply contested mid-term elections.
“Our hearts break for every American who has suffered,” Trump said, while dismissing calls for curbs on civilians’ ability to buy semi-automatic weapons.
“It’s not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference,” he said. “In America we trust the people to be wise and to be good.”
Trump’s warm up act, Vice President Mike Pence, went as far as to say there was too much coverage of the sorrow of mass shootings and not enough of “good guys” with guns.
The White House duo instead doled out red meat to their political base, trashing the “fake news” media and the “witch hunt” Russia investigation, endorsing Republican election wannabees and praising the “great American flag.”
Public demands for stricter gun control measures soared after 17 people were shot dead in Parkland, with students mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people in Washington March 24 for a mass display of outrage.
But the Republican-controlled Congress has taken little action and polls indicate public sentiment in favor of stricter gun laws is cooling, as it has after previous mass shootings.
Aides promised a stemwinder of a speech — with one eye on the electoral calendar — and Trump delivered.
Just a 10 minute walk from the plaza where his predecessor John F. Kennedy was shot dead, the 45th president vowed that the right to bear arms would “never ever be under siege as long as I am president.”
He slammed countries like France and Britain, which have tough gun laws, claiming attacks and stabbings could have been prevented if only citizens were armed — at one point mimicking the assailants in the Paris Bataclan attack of November 2015 picking out their victims: “Boom! Come over here. Boom! Come over here.”
Trump had flirted with tougher gun laws in the wake of the Parkland attack, but under pressure from donors and facing a Democratic landslide in Congressional elections this November, he quickly backtracked.
– A political force –
The four-day NRA gathering in Dallas brings together hundreds of exhibitors as well as special events for members like the “Leadership Forum” where Trump gave his address.
With more than five million members, the NRA is long established as a powerful political force in the United States and fierce defender of the constitutional right to bear arms.
Since the massacre in Parkland, Trump has made clear he would not back a ban on assault rifles, a key demand of the student protesters.
Instead he has proposed a ban on “bump stocks,” devices used to convert semi-automatic weapons into automatic-like weapons by accelerating their rate of fire.
Bump stocks were used by the gunman who mowed down 58 people at a country music concert in Las Vegas in October, the deadliest such attack in modern US history.
The president has also voiced support for student protesters calling for the minimum age for gun purchases to rise from 18 to 21, a position the NRA opposes.
Controversially, though, Trump also advocates arming teachers as a first line of defense against school shooters, echoing the NRA’s claim that “the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is good guy with a gun.”
The organization exerts outsized influence in Congress and state legislatures by financing the campaigns of supporters and targeting opponents.
After the Parkland massacre, the outpouring of emotion indicated that the political environment might be changing, putting the NRA on the defensive.
A Gallup poll in early March found that some 67 percent of Americans believed gun laws should be stricter, a 15-year high in the firm’s surveys.
But by mid-April a Marist poll found that the percentage of people for whom gun policy will heavily influence their vote in November had fallen to 46 percent from 59 percent in February.