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United States

Donald Trump vows to protect gun-owners’ interests at NRA while invoking Parkland high school shooting

It was the first time that Trump had spoken to National Rifle Association members since criticising lawmakers for being ‘afraid of the NRA’ in February

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 1:59am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 7:48pm

US President Donald Trump addressed the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting on Friday, signalling his strong support for the gun rights group despite previously suggesting he was open to some firearm restrictions, while invoking the Florida school shooting that led to waves of anti-gun protests earlier this year. 

“Your second amendment rights are under siege but they will never ever be under siege as long as I’m your president,” Trump told NRA members, whom he referred to as patriots, before going on to say how the country was horrified by a shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school.

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Trump declined to mention restrictions on gun sales to minors, instead reiterating his support for “hardening” schools by arming staff, saying that potential shooters, faced with “the knowledge that their attack will end their life and end in total failure”, would not dare enter the school. 

He has already addressed the NRA three times and has counted it as a powerful ally from the earliest days of his presidential campaign. The group spent more money on behalf of Trump than any other outside group in 2016, deploying its resources for him earlier than in any other presidential cycle.

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But Friday’s speech was his first appearance before NRA members since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, which created a new wave of momentum for the gun-control movement, led by the students themselves.

In his speech, Trump avoided addressing that controversy head-on, instead reiterating the NRA’s line that more guns in schools – along with metal detectors and increased numbers of police and security guards – would lead to fewer school shootings.

At the time, the massacre also moved Trump to flirt with stricter gun measures in defiance of NRA priorities, such as raising the legal age to purchase AR-15s and similar types of rifles to 21 and expanding background checks to guns sold at shows and online.

In a meeting with lawmakers, Trump even mocked Republican lawmakers over the power of the gun lobby, telling one Republican senator he was “afraid of the NRA”. 

But he quickly backtracked, instead embracing modest gun-related measures such as legislation to improve information sharing for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. 

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That bill, known as the Fix NICS Act, was signed into law as part of a government spending measure in March. His Justice Department has also proposed barring “bump stocks” – devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire like fully automatic weapons – through regulations, although Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill would prefer that be done legislatively.

During Friday’s speech, Trump also brought up the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris that left 130 dead and 413 injured. 

“They took their time and gunned [unarmed civilians] down one by one,” he told the crowd. “Boom! ‘Come over here.’ Boom! ‘Come over here.’ Boom! ‘Come over here.’

But, he said, “if just one employee or just one patron or if some person in this room were there and had aimed a gun in their direction, the terrorists would have fled or been shot, and it would all be a different story.”

Trump also said an unnamed London hospital had “blood all over the floors” from an epidemic of stabbings, suggesting that nations with tougher gun laws have as much violent crime as the US.

“I recently read a story that, in London, which has unbelievably tough gun laws, a once very prestigious hospital – right in the middle – is like a war zone for horrible stabbing wounds,” Trump said.

“They don’t have guns. They have knives. And, instead, there’s blood all over the floors of this hospital. They say it’s as bad as a military war-zone hospital. Knives, knives, knives. London hasn’t been used to that. They’re getting used to it. It’s pretty tough.”

London has experienced a surge in violent crime this year, with 52 people killed in the first 100 days of 2018. Murders in the city rose to 153 in the year to the end of March, from 101 the previous year.

But the magnitude of violent crime is still well below that of the US, where there were an estimated 17,250 murders in 2016, according to data compiled by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Programme. In New York City that year, the bureau and the New York Police Department reported 335 homicides.

However there were no “good guys with guns” in the crowd for Friday's speech, as the NRA had prohibited guns and other weapons on the floor in compliance with the orders of the Secret Service.

“Due to the attendance of the President and Vice-President of the United States, the US Secret Service will be responsible for event security at the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum,” the NRA said in a disclaimer on its site. 

“As a result, firearms and firearm accessories, knives or weapons of any kind will be prohibited in the forum prior to and during his attendance.”

The NRA provides a link to a Secret Service document which says the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Centre will be “under the jurisdiction of the US Secret Service during the Leadership Forum.” The notice also tells attendees that by entering the arena, they are “consenting to a search”.

In addition to firearms, the Secret Service said prohibited items include toy guns, selfie sticks, laser pointers, aerosols, backpacks, signs, and all glass, metal or thermal containers.

After Trump and Pence leave, “NRA rules apply and people will be permitted to carry,” the group said in a statement.

The NRA stressed that the temporary ban is at the demand of the Secret Service and is standard procedure at presidential events.

But the distinction that guns were prohibited by the Secret Service rather than the NRA did not deter the organisation’s critics and gun control advocates from calling the ban hypocritical.

The NRA had its defenders as well.

“Trump’s gun-free zone at the NRA convention is no more hypocritical than President Obama, a strong gun control advocate, being surrounded by Secret Service agents brandishing hard-core firearms to protect him,” Beverly Hills resident William David Stone wrote in a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times. “Relax people, it’s common sense.”

Fox News columnist John Lott said the “news media love to criticise hypocrisy – at least by conservatives – even when it doesn’t exist.”

“Protecting the president and vice-president of the United States from assassination is not the same as protecting a group of people from a mass public shooting or protecting you or me from being robbed on a dark street,” Lott said. 

Ordinary people don’t have Secret Service protection and concealed weapons are more useful against mass shooters than assassins, Lott explained.

Trump’s attendance at this year’s NRA convention was announced just days ago; asked why he was attending, given the current political tensions around gun violence, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said this week that safety was a “big priority”.

But, she added, “We also support the Second Amendment, and strongly support it, and don’t see there to be a problem with speaking at the National Rifle Association’s meeting.”