A year ago, the nation’s most powerful gun lobby was riding high: The millions the National Rifle Association had spent to help elect Donald Trump, one of the nation’s most gun-friendly presidents, had paid off, and members were hopeful that more firearms restrictions would soon be eased.
Oh, how things have changed.
In the last 12 months, Americans have witnessed the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, a gut-wrenching attack at a Florida high school and bitterly divided politics in Washington. Those factors gave fresh momentum to gun-control advocates and stalled the NRA’s agenda, despite firm GOP control of Congress and the White House. Then corporate America began turning its back on the group, dropping scores of discount programs or refusing to sell gun-industry products.
When the NRA holds its annual meeting this weekend in Dallas, the gathering will provide a window into the organization’s message and strategy ahead of this year’s midterm elections. The convention will also have a return guest: Trump, making his fourth consecutive visit to the meeting.
For the NRA, the meeting provides an opportunity to unite around the idea that members must push back against a liberal agenda that seeks to trample their Second Amendment rights. The thousands of people in attendance will listen to political speeches, check out the latest firearms, attend gun training courses and socialize. The audience consists mostly of hardcore gun-rights supporters.
“They’re taking a very hard line in the sand of our Constitution” that has to be protected “at all costs,” said Julianna Crowder, a firearms instructor and founder and president of A Girl and Gun Women’s Shooting League in Austin, Texas.
Gun-control groups have been spurred on by a younger generation impatient with inaction. Teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida began pushing for gun restrictions almost immediately after a former student killed 17 people at the school in February. The survivors have led a series of rallies and marches, most notably an event in Washington in March that was the anchor for a national day of protest.
The students have pressed to raise the legal age to purchase a rifle, curb access to AR-style firearms and adopt other gun restrictions. While there’s been no movement at the federal level, several states have enacted tougher gun laws.
The NRA’s top priorities — allowing gun owners with a state-issued concealed-carry permit to carry a handgun in any state and easing restrictions on the sales of suppressors — remain unfulfilled. But at the same time, the group has not lost any ground in Congress. Lawmakers have struggled to make even minor adjustments to background check systems.
Still, the leading manufacturer of bump stocks, which allow a semi-automatic long gun to mimic the firepower of a fully automatic weapon, is going out of business. Several states have enacted “red flag” laws that make it easier to confiscate firearms from someone considered to be a danger to themselves or others, including two historically gun-friendly states: Florida and Vermont.
Gun-control measures historically take years to become law. The Gun Control Act of 1968 was initially proposed after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 but wasn’t enacted until five years later, just months after Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were gunned down. The Brady Act, which created the national background check system and imposed a five-day waiting period, was enacted in 1993, more than a decade after White House press secretary Jim Brady was shot during an assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan.
Gun-control advocates consider the midterm elections the first big test for their reinvigorated movement.
“I think you’re going to see gun safety played out very prominently in many, many races, particularly in suburban swing districts,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “That will give you a very, very good sign of how much staying power and how much traction there is.”
But don’t count out the NRA and its estimated 5 million members. Just this past March, the group posted its highest fundraising totals in more than a decade, and gun-rights supporters still have a hold on Congress and the White House. Many NRA members remain faithful.
“There are some hard conversations that have to happen,” said Crowder, 42. “And you have to have someone with courage to stand up and speak the truth and say, ‘If you give up this … what’s next you will be asked to give up?’”
Other gun owners say the NRA is too rigid and that the nation needs to do more to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
Anne Musial is a 39-year-old gun owner in Austin and a board member with Texas Gun Sense, a gun-safety group. She’s currently enrolled in an NRA shooting course, but she’s not an NRA member.
“I think that the message the NRA puts out is that all firearms are sacrosanct, any regulation on them is an infringement on liberty and freedom. But in my opinion, guns are dangerous objects that should be more regulated in order to prevent more gun violence and gun deaths. And it’s not about taking people’s guns away,” she said.