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Trump says mass shootings are not 'a gun problem' as 2024 GOP hopefuls pledge loyalty to the NRA

The former president and his rivals for the Republican nomination vowed to defend and expand gun rights in the wake of rampages in Kentucky and Tennessee.
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INDIANAPOLIS — Former President Donald Trump vowed to defend and expand gun-owners rights in a speech to the National Rifle Association's annual meeting here Friday.

"I was proud to be the most pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment president you've ever had in the White House," Trump said to an audience that leapt to its feet, cheered and chanted "U-S-A" when he was introduced. "And with your support in 2024, I will be your loyal friend and fearless champion once again as the 47th president of the United States."

Against the backdrop of recent mass shootings in Tennessee and Kentucky, a stampede of 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls and possible candidates rushed to pledge their loyalty to the NRA before several thousand gun-rights activists in a spacious hall at the convention center here. And they scoffed at the notion that gun and ammunition restrictions would reduce violence.

"It is a scandal and a tragedy that year after year, Democrats in Washington continue to hold commonsense school safety measures hostage to their radical gun control agenda, which, in virtually all cases, would do nothing to prevent attacks by demented and disturbed individuals," Trump said.

"This is not a gun problem," he added, as he batted cleanup for a long list of Republican officials and office seekers. "This is a mental health problem, this is a social problem, this is a cultural problem, this is a spiritual problem."

14: Former President Donald Trump at the 2023 NRA-ILA Leadership Forum in Indianapolis on April 14, 2023.
Former President Donald Trump at the 2023 NRA-ILA Leadership Forum in Indianapolis on April 14, 2023.Scott Olson / Getty Images

In addition to Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy spoke in person. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered brief remarks in prerecorded videos.

The NRA has been weakened in recent years by a scandal involving the use of the nonprofit organization's funds and a related lawsuit pursued by the state of New York. But the rush by presidential contenders and possible candidates to make promises to the group demonstrated that its single issue remains a powerful one in Republican primaries.

"I am the NRA," Noem said before signing a South Dakota order, on stage, that she said would prevent financial institutions from discriminating against gun owners.

In jockeying for the favor of the crowd, the politicians pointed to the escalating stakes of a presidential race that is still taking shape. Trump, seeking his third consecutive nomination, has held a commanding lead in nearly every national poll. DeSantis has distinguished himself in surveys as the clear second-place choice among GOP voters at this early stage.

They were the two candidates NRA members chattered about as they waited in line, some for hours, to claim seats in the convention hall. And long before he took the stage, Trump was mentioned by name — and by implication — in some potential rivals' speeches.

"It’s not in our DNA as Americans to say that the leadership of yesterday is gonna be our best chance for the leadership of tomorrow," Sununu said in a thinly veiled swipe at Trump. "Are you kidding?"

Pence, a former Indiana governor who is considering a presidential bid, was received in his home state by a mix of lusty boos and loud applause. The split reaction underscored part of the challenge Pence would face in a campaign after he enraged Trump and many Republican voters by certifying President Joe Biden's election in 2021. But he would also be hamstrung in a race against Trump by an obvious truth he nodded to in his remarks: his accomplishments as vice president flowed from Trump's as president.

Referring to the Trump-Pence administration, he said, "We stood without apology for the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms."

In an interview with NBC News, former Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican and a member of the NRA’s board of directors, said he’s undecided about the contest for the GOP nomination.

“I’ve been a supporter of Donald Trump’s, but I see the options, too, and I like DeSantis,” Craig said. “I’m not sure Donald Trump can be stopped for the nomination. Therein lies the question.”

Though many attendees wore Trump-branded hats and shirts, the former president's positions on firearms have not always aligned with those of the most ardent activists.

"He could have been better on that," said Liza Danno, 48, who traveled to the convention from suburban Chicago. "But you know, anyone you vote for, you don’t back 100 percent of everything they approve."

Her husband, Joe Danno, 47, identified as problematic Trump's support for a ban on bump stocks — accessories that enable shooters to fire semi-automatic weapons more quickly — and his call to raise the age limit for gun purchases to 21.

The couple reflected the range of sentiments of Republican primary voters who spoke to NBC News Friday. Liza Danno said she will vote for Trump. Her husband said that's his plan, too, but that he will give DeSantis a chance to make the case for himself.

"He would probably be my vote if it wasn't Trump," Joe Danno said. "I'm definitely open because I don't know enough about Ron DeSantis to count him out."

On Friday, DeSantis was in New Hampshire, site of next year's first-in-the-nation GOP presidential primary, to speak at a Republican fundraising dinner.

But he had fans at the convention, which featured a massive exhibit hall filled with all manner of weapons, accessories and apparel — from handguns to long rifles and an automatic feeder for speed-loading rounds into magazines.

Evelyn Kuhn, a 65-year-old nurse from Payne, Ohio, just across the border from Fort Wayne, Indiana, said she's worried that Trump would lose a general election and finds his "attitude" unsettling at times. That has led her to DeSantis.

"I like his views and his demeanor and what he’s done with Florida," she said.

In his prerecorded remarks, DeSantis said the Second Amendment is "the last backstop of freedom, the foundation on which all of our other rights rest." His appearance was greeted with applause in the convention hall.

During his speech, Trump made several specific policy promises. He said he would prod Congress to pass legislation creating a national system of reciprocity to allow people to carry concealed weapons while visiting other states.

He also said that he would establish a tax credit to subsidize gun purchases and training for teachers, and that he would direct the Food and Drug Administration to study the effects of transgender hormone therapy on "extreme depression, aggression and even violence."

Noting that he appointed three justices to a Supreme Court that has expanded gun rights, Trump also pledged to release a list of potential Supreme Court picks — as he did during his first two campaigns — before the general election in 2024.