The pro-gun community had reason to be suspicious of Donald Trump.
He wrote in favor of an assault weapons ban and a “slightly longer” waiting period before gun purchases in a 2000 book, and accused Republicans of walking “the NRA line.” And even as he rebranded himself a “2nd Amendment maven” in 2013, he sounded conflicted, suggesting he favored expanded background checks.
No one on either side of the gun debate seems to know exactly when or why Trump shifted. But they agree that the mogul from Manhattan has become one of the most forceful pro-gun presidents in decades.
Now, after the worst mass shooting in American history, Trump faces a gut-check moment on guns. He could not have imagined that within his first year as president he would come under pressure, even from within his typically pro-gun party, to support legislation restricting gun use, however limited — in this case, a ban on so-called bump-fire stocks like the Las Vegas shooter used, which turn semiautomatic weapons into virtual machine guns.
White House officials, both privately and publicly, insist he is not likely to endorse fundamental change, that is, broader gun controls. Meanwhile, the gun lobby is watching.
“When a crisis happens you can really tell who your friends are,” said Dudley Brown, president of the National Assn. for Gun Rights, which advertises itself as more hard-line on gun rights than the NRA.
For decades, as he flirted with presidential runs, Trump tried to stake a position between what he called, in 2000, “the extremes of the two existing major parties.”
In his book that year, “The America We Deserve,” Trump accused Democrats of trying to confiscate all guns and Republicans of refusing even limited restrictions because of the NRA’s hold on the party. In a brief, four-paragraph section on guns, between multi-page sections on “prisons” and “capital punishment,” Trump wrote that he supported President Clinton’s assault-weapons ban along with a brief waiting period for gun buyers.
Eleven years earlier, in a 1989 interview on MSNBC, Trump seemed even more ambivalent about gun rights.
Saying he owned “a couple of guns,” he added: “Now, I hate the concept of guns. I'm not in favor of it, except for one thing: the bad guys are going to have them.” He would be “all for” a total ban — if “you could take the guns away from the bad guys.”
Trump had not renounced those positions as late as 2013, when he told radio host Howard Stern that the focus should be on gun purchasers’ medical problems and past records.
“It’s a very, very difficult subject, but you need guns for protection,” he told Stern.
That ambivalence vanished when Trump ran for president and tried to distinguish himself in a crowded Republican primary. He boasted in a 2015 debate of carrying weapons “on occasion — sometimes a lot.”
“Opponents of gun rights try to come up with scary-sounding phrases like ‘assault weapons,’ ‘military-style weapons’ and ‘high-capacity magazines’ to confuse people,” Trump said in a campaign position paper. “Law-abiding people should be allowed to own the firearm of their choice. The government has no business dictating what types of firearms good, honest people are allowed to own.”
The NRA helped to elect Trump, spending more than $30 million and endorsing him at a point in the campaign when many Republicans were still reluctant to support him, even as he closed in on enough delegates to get the party’s nomination.
Trump returned the favor with some of the strongest pro-gun rhetoric ever delivered by a presidential candidate. He told an NRA audience that Democratic rival Hillary Clinton wanted to destroy the 2nd Amendment and that terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino would have been stopped if more victims were armed.
He said of the Paris attackers in the November 2015 incident: “They just stood there and shot everybody.”
“If you would have had guns on the other side,” he added, “I promise there wouldn’t have been 130 people killed and hundreds of people lying in the hospital to this day.”
Trump has sought to fortify his gun-loving credentials by association with his sons, Eric and Donald Jr., who have been photographed hunting exotic animals in Africa. “They have so many rifles and so many guns, even I get concerned,” Trump joked at the NRA conference.
He endorsed a national right to carry, regardless of local laws that are restrictive, and promised, on his first day in office, to eliminate restrictions on bringing guns within 1,000 feet of primary and secondary schools.
Trump failed to overturn the federal gun-free-zone law, an action that requires Congress to pass repeal legislation. Yet he has generally pleased the gun lobby since taking office.
In February, the president signed into law a measure overturning an Obama administration rule that would have denied gun access to about 75,000 Social Security beneficiaries per year who had been declared both incapable of handling their own affairs and mentally incompetent.
Trump’s Justice Department narrowed the definition of fugitive under federal gun laws, clearing the way for thousands of additional people to buy guns, according to The Trace, a news site supported by advocates of gun limits. And his Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, overturned a ban on using lead ammunition on wildlife refuges.
Gun groups are hoping for more, including measures in Congress that would make it easier to buy silencers and for veterans deemed mentally incompetent to carry a firearm. A separate measure would allow people who have permits under state law to carry guns anywhere in the country, regardless of local laws.
Now it is Trump who is owned by the NRA, gun control groups say.
Speaking of NRA members, Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said, “I suppose they’re betting people, and having put all of their money into candidate Trump, they’re expecting that he’s bought and paid for.”
Yet Brown and others on her side are hoping Trump will shift again. “He has a real moment here,” Brown said, adding, “I’m not Pollyannaish about things.”
After Sunday’s Las Vegas attack, Trump echoed rhetoric that the NRA and its supporters often use following mass shootings, saying it was too soon to talk about gun policy. But he and his administration dropped hints that he might be open to discussion in time.
“We’ll talk about gun laws as time goes by,” Trump said on Tuesday, ahead of a visit to Las Vegas.
By Thursday, after the NRA said there should be restrictions on bump stocks — but through regulation, not a new law — White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration was eager to have that conversation. But she added that Trump is “a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment. That hasn't changed.”
Another White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Trump was most likely to back narrow measures. The official said Trump would also continue to appoint judges and other officials who share his view of expansive 2nd Amendment rights.
The NRA, which is often silent after mass shootings, did not respond to several requests for comment.
At the National Assn. for Gun Rights, Dudley Brown said he is fighting to make sure Trump doesn’t act. But he’s not especially worried.
“There certainly was some question about his history, especially when you’re not an elected official in any manner,” he said. But, Brown added, “This administration has done much better than we thought.”