INDIANAPOLIS — The National Rifle Association has been rocked by scandal and plagued by lawsuits. Its annual conferences are regularly held against the backdrop of mass shootings — because gun violence has become so commonplace. Its brand has been tarnished and its power diminished, according to both allies and adversaries.
Still, serious hopefuls for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination wouldn't miss the chance to address this weekend's meeting of NRA members for the world — even it means participating remotely. Former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence are both scheduled to appear in person here Friday, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is traveling to New Hampshire, the site of the first-in-the-nation primary, will send in a video message.
"Despite what has happened with the organization over the last several years, it’s probably still the largest gathering of Second Amendment voters," said Devin O'Malley, a spokesman for Pence.
In that way, the NRA remains an important conduit between candidates and conservative voters who not only favor gun rights but see them as a proxy for individual liberty against government regulation. At the same time, NRA affiliates' outside spending — the main vehicle for influencing elections — fell from more than $54 million in the 2016 presidential cycle to under $30 million in the 2020 cycle, according to the watchdog group OpenSecrets.
"The issue is just as powerful as it's ever been, but I don't think the group is as powerful," said Brian Darling, a former counsel to libertarian-minded Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. "Gun rights are a core issue for freedom for many Republican primary voters. ... If you have a candidate saying the wrong things, then that raises a red flag on a number of other issues."
Advocates for tightening gun restrictions say Republican presidential candidates put themselves at risk in the general election by lining up to align themselves with the NRA.
"Republican genuflection at the NRA convention puts the GOP in a political doom loop with the voters they need to win national elections," said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who survived a mass shooting in Arizona in 2011.
"Voters want strong gun laws that will protect kids and prevent violent crime," Ambler said. "The NRA offers their Republican allies a toxic brand that makes Donald Trump appear reasonable by comparison — more extremism, more violence, more venality and corruption."
Everyone’s going to flock to the NRA gathering and pledge their fealty. There will be thoughts and prayers for the dead and dying, but nothing will change.
— Former RNC Chair Michael Steele
Since 2015, a majority of Americans have consistently favored more strict regulations on the purchase of firearms, according to the polling organization Gallup. But the gun issue is also one that most voters give little priority.
The familiar cycle in the wake of mass shootings is one in which reform advocates call for stronger restrictions on the sale of particular weapons, such as the semi-automatic AR-15 rifle; accessories; and ammunition, while gun-rights activists and like-minded elected officials point to mental illness as the proximate cause of violence.
Last year, President Joe Biden signed the first major gun-restriction law in decades, which focused on mental health intervention and expanding background checks for buyers under the age of 21.
But against the backdrop of inaction by Congress and the White House on stricter limitations, the Supreme Court ruled last year that people have a constitutional right to carry guns in public. At the state level, conservative governors and legislatures have been expanding gun rights.
DeSantis, for example, signed legislation earlier this month that allows people to carry guns in Florida without a permit or training.
Trump upset some gun owners by backing a ban on bump stocks, the devices that allow shooters to fire semi-automatic weapons more rapidly, and by showing some interest in other gun restrictions. But he remains a favorite of many gun owners, and an official on his campaign said talking to the NRA makes sense during a presidential campaign.
"They’re still the pre-eminent gun rights group in America and they still wield a lot of influence and a lot of power," the official said.
Republican strategists say the NRA still acts as a validator for GOP candidates, even if they have their own means of demonstrating their support for gun rights. And it's that connection to gun-rights activists that matters most, according to the group.
"Their attendance speaks to the strength of the Second Amendment but above all, it is a tribute to the true power of the NRA — our valued members,” said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA.
The set of GOP contenders and potential candidates scheduled to speak at the conference includes New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who is seen by many in his party as a moderate on other issues. But gun rights are a major concern for many voters in the Live Free or Die state.
“New Hampshire is one of the safest states in the country with some of the best firearms laws and home to incredible companies — including Sig Sauer,” Sununu said in a statement to NBC News. “I look forward to sharing our New Hampshire success and how it can be replicated across this country with NRA members this weekend.”
Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he recalls attending a candidate forum where hopefuls for the top spot in the GOP were asked about their support for gun rights. The discussion quickly turned performative, he said, with each candidate talking about which guns they owned and how much they liked to shoot.
"It was almost like a d--- measuring contest," he said in an interview.
Since then, he said, the Republican Party has become even more hardened by a base that is recalcitrant in the face of calls for greater gun restrictions amid mass shootings.
"The rhetoric has gotten harsher, the compassion for those who are affected by gun violence is gone, the concern for actually addressing an issue that is a 75% issue for the American people is gone. The idea that even thinking about doing something is gone," he said. "So, the party finds itself in a harder position relative to the American people."
Steele lamented what he called an "unholy alliance" among activists, the NRA and gun manufacturers, saying the GOP is in a position to change the national approach to guns but is locked into its position by its base.
"Everyone’s going to flock to the NRA gathering and pledge their fealty," he said. "There will be thoughts and prayers for the dead and dying, but nothing will change."