Media outlets repeated a tired myth about the National Rifle Association’s power when their headlines credited the pro-gun organization’s “influence” as the reason President Donald Trump walked back his support for universal background checks. Media claimed the NRA saw “results” after Trump “caved” to the group, providing a simple counternarrative to reporting on recent massive turmoil, corruption scandals and infighting at the organization.
The reality is more complicated: By the time the president reportedly called NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre to say he wouldn’t support expanded background checks, Trump had reportedly already lost interest in the gun safety measures as the mass shootings faded from the news cycle, according to sources within the administration.
While the NRA remains entwined within GOP gun politics, that fact shouldn’t be confused with the media conventional wisdom that sometimes falsely suggests the NRA can decide the outcomes of general elections at will.
Trump officially reversed support for background checks following a call with NRA head Wayne LaPierre
After mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, Trump called for stronger background checks. In the days following back-to-back public mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, Trump said he was talking with Congress about pushing legislation for background checks and extreme risk protection orders. Trump said he wanted to convince Congress “to do things that they don’t want to do” and to “do the right thing.” He resisted supporting a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines but said there is “a very strong appetite” for background checks:
President Donald Trump said Wednesday he is talking with congressional leaders and considering tougher background checks for gun buyers as lawmakers coalesce around the idea of "red flag" laws after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
“I'm looking to do background checks,” Trump said at the White House as he departed for Dayton, where he met with shooting survivors and first responders. “I think background checks are important.”
Trump, who also visited El Paso on Wednesday, said he senses there is “a very strong appetite” for background checks, though many lawmakers have mostly focused publicly on red flag laws aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people deemed an imminent danger to themselves or others. [USA Today, 8/7/19]
Two weeks later, Trump told the NRA that background checks are off the table. Just two weeks after he first said he supported enhanced background checks, Trump called LaPierre to tell him that he wouldn’t support any consideration of the gun safety measure. The president reportedly spoke to the NRA several times over the month of August, and The Washington Post reported Trump and LaPierre “had no disagreements” at the end of their most recent call, which the president initiated.
President Trump talked Tuesday with National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre and assured him that universal background checks were off the table, according to several people familiar with the call.
Trump told LaPierre that the White House remained interested in proposals that would address weapons getting into the hands of the mentally ill, including the possibility of backing so-called “red flag” laws that would allow the police to temporarily confiscate guns from people who have been shown to be a danger to themselves or others.
Tuesday’s call with LaPierre, which was initiated by Trump, lasted 45 minutes and by the end of it, the two men had no disagreements, the people familiar with the call said. The president seemed more focused on funding for mental health programs and other topics of interest to the NRA, the people said.
For his part, LaPierre seemed pleased with his conversation with Trump, tweeting about it late Tuesday. [The Washington Post, 8/20/19]
Media headlines used Trump’s reversal to hype NRA’s influence in light of recent scandals.
The Atlantic, 8/20/19:
Vanity Fair, 8/21/19:
The New York Times, 8/20/19:
The Hill, 8/20/19:
Media has routinely overstated the NRA’s power in politics
Trump “lost interest” in pushing for gun safety laws after multiple mass shootings. Rather than caving to the NRA, anonymous White House officials told the Daily Beast that the president has already “started to move on” from gun safety laws following the mass shootings in Ohio and Texas because “he loses patience [quickly].” The Daily Beast pointed out Trump’s short attention span is “hardly a surprise”: He promised background checks following a previous mass shooting only to drop the idea once the massacre “faded from the news cycle.” The Daily Beast report was published prior to Trump’s call with LaPierre. [The Daily Beast, 8/20/19]
Republican lawmakers need little if any nudging from the NRA to fall in line. A debate over gun laws following a mass shooting at a Virginia municipal building earlier this year typifies a recent trend in which GOP lawmakers are typically so extreme on gun policy that they don’t need additional encouragement from the NRA to block gun safety proposals. Despite the Washington Post’s conclusion that the NRA “flexed its muscles” in Virginia this year during the state’s special session on gun safety legislation, which ended only 90 minutes after it began, the organization’s activities surrounding the special session had very little to do with Virginia Republicans’ refusal to hear the proposed laws. Prominent Republicans, including one closely linked with an extremist local gun group not affiliated with the NRA, have used their control of the legislature (obtained through gerrymandering) to block gun reform for years. In fact, White House sources have said the NRA is mostly missing on the issue of gun safety regulation, but the Republican lawmakers are “total wingers” about gun rights anyway. [Media Matters, 7/15/19; Twitter, 8/21/19]
While the NRA does have influence on GOP gun policy, it’s a tired myth that it typically sways elections. The idea that support for gun regulations caused Democrats to lose the U.S. House during the 1994 midterm elections or that NRA caused Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign loss is a common media myth. In reality, Congress raised taxes in 1993 and failed to pass health care reform, which had a larger impact on the way people voted, according to academic political science research. Expert analysis also proved Gore’s election loss in southern states can be attributed more to a growing partisan shift towards Republican support, as opposed to the NRA’s position. In fact, one study found that Gore’s position on firearms offered him a slight boost with voters. A statistical analysis of NRA spending over several U.S. House and Senate cycles found that the NRA’s endorsement and spending was highly overrated for several reasons, including that the NRA typically picked safe races to engage in to create the perception of having a high win percentage, and that the NRA spread its money around too thinly to be a deciding factor in the vast majority of races. [Media Matters, 5/25/17; ThinkProgress, 2/9/12, 2/13/12]