In a speech to National Rifle Association members Friday that was part political rally and part pep talk, President Donald Trump called himself a champion of gun rights. Then he proved it, whipping out a pen onstage to sign a letter that would effectively cease America’s involvement in an arms treaty designed to regulate the international sale of conventional weapons.
Trump said his administration “will never” ratify the Arms Trade Treaty, which seeks to discourage the sale of conventional weapons to countries that do not protect human rights.
Although the accord was brokered by the United Nations and signed by President Barack Obama, it has never been ratified by the Senate. Experts in arms control note that the accord, even if ratified by the Senate, would not require the United States to alter any existing domestic laws or procedures governing how it sells conventional weapons overseas.
Still, Trump said his decision to sign a letter asking the Senate to send the treaty back to the White House “is a big, big factor,” calling the accord a “badly misguided” arrangement.
To supporters of the decision, making certain that the United States does not ratify the treaty is one more step toward deregulation that Trump has championed. In a call with reporters, a senior administration official said that a major factor in his decision was the lack of compliance with the treaty from other large conventional arms exporters, including China and Russia.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the United States had its own set of controls to ensure the appropriate sale of arms abroad, and added that the Trump administration opposed possible future amendments to the treaty up for consideration in 2020.
Critics see it as a concession to the gun lobby and another effort by the Trump administration to distance itself from multilateral diplomatic initiatives – from the nuclear deal with Iran to the Paris climate agreement – that advocates say are meant to make the world a safer place.
"The president’s action today is yet another mistaken step that threatens to make the world less safe, rather than more secure,” Thomas Countryman, a former assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation and lead U.S. negotiator on the Arms Trade Treaty, said in a statement.
“It is sad, but to be expected, that this president opposes efforts to require other countries to meet the high standards of U.S. military export decisions,” Countryman said.
Trump’s move means that the United States would be in the company of countries like North Korea and Iran, which abstained from participation in the treaty, and leaving behind a group of the world’s largest gun manufacturers, including France and Germany, who signed on.
But in Indianapolis, the president’s announcement prompted a standing ovation, as did some of the other red-meat campaign rally topics.
Trump touted gains in the economy and railed against a “corrupt” news media. He also disparaged the special counsel investigation into his campaign that he said had been part of a coup attempt carried out at the highest levels of the government.
“They tried for a coup, didn’t work out so well,” Trump said. “Didn’t need a gun for that one, did I?”
The president’s speech delivered a much-appreciated shot in the arm to an organization besieged by inner turmoil. A group known for deploying steely messaging toward its enemies, the NRA – which billed itself as “freedom’s safest place” during its annual convention this year – fed attendees a steady diet of slogans to suggest that their beliefs, way of life and ability to protect themselves is at stake by Hollywood, politicians and the press.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence helped reinforce that idea in front of a stadium crowd as they took jabs at 2020 Democrats and the party’s most liberal factions.
“Under this president and this vice president,” Pence said, “no one is taking your guns.”
The NRA was hit with a rebuke for its lobbying tactics this month when the Democratic-controlled House approved a revamped Violence Against Women Act that would bar those convicted of abusing, assaulting or stalking a domestic partner from buying guns. Trump disparaged this and other legislative attempts as a move by Democrats to ensure that “bad guys” keep their guns.
The legislative setback played out as the NRA has endured scrutiny over desperate calls for fundraising and a rare dirty-laundry lawsuit. This month, the NRA sued the ad firm Ackerman McQueen, one of its closest contractors and the operator of its media arm and the NRATV channel, of mishandling $40 million that it and its affiliates receive annually from the association.
It has also been named in a lawsuit filed against the Federal Election Commission by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which has accused the group of abusing campaign finance laws to funnel money toward Trump and several other Republicans. (In a statement, the NRA called it a “lawsuit based on a frivolous complaint.”)
“There’s definitely some bad news, and the NRA internally is suffering from some major turmoil,” Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in the Second Amendment, said in an interview. “But there’s been some major success with Donald Trump.”
Members of the NRA’s 5-million-strong gun rights advocates who have supported Trump from his days as a long shot Republican presidential candidate, looked toward his visit as welcome fuel to continue battling well-funded gun control groups and Democrats in the House.
“The president is the most enthusiastic supporter of the Second Amendment that has occupied the White House in recent history,” Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman, said in an interview. “He has embraced the NRA, and the members, and the hundreds of millions of law-abiding gun owners of this country.”
Baker added that NRA members have been fervently pro-Trump since the beginning because they understood what was at risk. “Our members are pretty politically astute,” Baker said. “The Supreme Court was at stake, and in recent history we haven’t had a presidential nominee that was so unabashed and vocal about their support for the Second Amendment and our organization.”
In his public comments, the president has not always been the most reliable ally, and at times he has – at least momentarily – embraced the types of gun-control proposals favoured by Democrats. In the days after a mass shooting at a Florida high school last year, the president encouraged lawmakers to stand up to the NRA, and suggested a policy of “take the guns first, go through due process second” for people thought to be mentally ill.
“They have great power over you people,” Trump told a group of lawmakers who gathered at the White House last February. “They have less power over me.”
Days later, the president retreated from those comments shortly after a private meeting with NRA leaders. He has since pushed for a ban on bump stocks – a modest move considered to be no great loss by the NRA – and suggested that the arming of teachers could make schools safer.
The Trump administration has largely decided to blame gun violence on access to mental health care over curbing access to guns. But according to a recent Reuters poll, the majority of Americans support tougher gun control laws, even if they have little faith that lawmakers will be able to pass them.
“After Parkland, President Trump said he’d support common-sense gun safety laws, but instead, his administration has simply recycled tired gun lobby rhetoric in attempt to juice slumping gun sales,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said in a statement.
“The majority of Americans, including the majority of Republicans and gun owners, support common-sense gun laws,” Watts said. “It’s infuriating to watch the president and vice president continue to prioritize the gun lobby’s profits over the safety of the American people.”
Gun rights advocates say Trump has delivered in an area where many of them say it matters most: reordering the judiciary by appointing two Supreme Court justices.
In its next term, in October, the Supreme Court will take up its first Second Amendment case in nearly a decade when it reviews a New York City gun law that limits residents from transporting their guns outside their homes. It will be the first test of a court that has been reoriented with the Trump-era appointments of Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch.
“There was one moment when it looked like maybe the NRA had bet on the wrong horse” when the president began suggesting minor gun control measures, Winkler said. Under Trump, the group has not gotten its complete wish list accomplished, including congressional passage of a national reciprocity law – the right for concealed-carry permit holders from one state to legally carry their guns in any other state.
But the ideological shift occurring in courts across the country is more than enough, Winkler said.
“It’s not perfect,” Winkler said, “but it’s damn near close.”
On Friday, as he invited people onstage who used their firearms to help prevent mayhem and violence, the president announced that his administration would soon have appointed 145 federal judges – “fair, impartial and mostly conservative judges who will interpret the Constitution as written,” Trump said.
His efforts, Trump said, were second only to George Washington’s.