US gun debate stirs conservative conference after Florida massacre
Florida college student Sarah Gibson renewed her National Rifle Association membership with a credit card swipe at a conservative conference on Thursday, days after a deadly school shooting in her state triggered soul-searching about America’s gun violence.
“I don’t think guns are the problem, they’re in fact the answer,” the 20-year-old said. “When you have more security and you have more people carrying, that is deterrence in itself.”
Gibson and thousands of fellow Republicans converged on the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, where they go each year to celebrate their causes and, in 2018, the populist movement that swept President Donald Trump into office one year ago.
But it was impossible to ignore the ever-present tragedy of rampaging gun violence, which has roiled American political discourse and put gun rights advocates and opponents under a hot spotlight.
While a moment of silence was held to honour the 17 people killed at a Florida high school, CPAC’s attendees or speakers did not shy away from the issue. Several actually went on the offensive.
NRA chief Wayne LaPierre hit back at what he called “the shameful politicisation of tragedy”, fighting a rearguard defence against street protests and mounting demands to tighten America’s permissive gun laws.
The powerful gun lobby’s spokeswoman, Dana Loesch, took it further, saying that “many in legacy media love mass shootings”.
In the halls of CPAC, talk often turned to guns – and, importantly, how to respond to the latest slaughter at the hands of a rifle-wielding madman.
Kelli Ward, a hardline conservative US Senate candidate from Arizona looking to fill the seat of retiring Senator Jeff Flake in November, said the national mourning over the Florida tragedy knows no political boundaries.
“I’m a life member of the NRA, I’m a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, and my heart is also broken for what happened,” she said.
At CPAC’s exhibit hall, gun rights supporter Thomas White, 23, predicted Trump would get a warm reception on Friday when he arrives, despite his announcement of support for laws to expand background checks and ban devices that turn semi-automatic rifles into machine guns.
“More people are opening up to Trump because he’s not the [traditional] mould,” said White.
Trump can be “offensive”, White admits. “But he’s coming from the heart to get issues solved,” including gun safety.
On Thursday, Trump bucked the NRA by backing raising the legal age for buying assault rifles to 21. But at the same time, he supported arming teachers and other school staff – a position the NRA and many Republicans have long advocated but Democrats reject.
It isn’t clear whether Trump will address gun violence in his speech at CPAC.
“Not surprised the NRA reeled President Trump back in,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. “Just amazed at how fast it happened.”
Congressional Democrats have been mixed in their reaction to Trump’s apparent willingness to buck pro-gun orthodoxy, even if only on a smaller issue like age limits.
Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz said on Twitter that he wasn’t interested in deal-making on guns. “I am normally interested in compromise. Not this time,” he wrote. “I cannot imagine a bill that would make a difference that the NRA supports. We don’t need to cut a deal with them, we need to beat them.”
White House spokesman Raj Shah said on Thursday the president was still open to proposals.
“The president is proposing ideas, he’s listening right now,” Shah said. “Right now we’re in a listening phase. I wouldn’t say that we are or aren’t going to propose something as specific as legislative language” but he will put forward something “a little more concrete”.
Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg