President Donald Trump has political capital to spend on limited gun regulation. But not Marco Rubio.
In the aftermath of last week’s tragic shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, both Trump and Rubio, rivals for the GOP nomination in 2016, have emerged as two of the most prominent faces of GOP action, or inaction, on gun legislation.
Conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, voiced unrelenting support for Trump on the issue, just hours after he tweeted support for raising the age requirement to purchase a semi-automatic rifle. On Wednesday night, in a town hall meeting broadcast by CNN, Rubio signaled openness to the same idea.
The NRA opposes raising the minimum age saying it is a Second Amendment infringement.
But in interviews Thursday at CPAC, attendees suggested that Trump’s flirtation with limited gun control fixes would cost him little amid a base of political fans that trusts him implicitly. For Rubio, however, supporting gun control measures could cost him, CPAC members said, reflecting lingering conservative distrust from his efforts to pass a sweeping immigration overhaul in 2013 — a leeriness that could give pause to any congressional colleagues considering changes to gun laws.
“Trump’s a negotiator, he’s giving a bit to the liberals and they’ll shout and say it’s not enough,” said Seton Motley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, Less Government. Motley praised Trump for offering what he said was a “smart concession” to ban bump stocks, the firearm accessory which enabled a Las Vegas gunman to kill 58 people in just minutes in October.
Critics are already saying it’s not enough, Motley said.
“He’s Mr. Art of the Deal. He knows the left will go ballistic,” Motley said, adding that he has no worries that Trump might go further and cross the NRA on other Second Amendment issues.
But Rubio? “I don’t have a lot of faith in the senator,” Motley said, a view echoed in other interviews.
It stems, Motley said, from Rubio’s role in backing a Senate bill five years ago that would have provided a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
“He was had by the Democrats in that deal and if you allow yourself to be had by the Democrats you aren’t paying attention,” Motley said.
Genevieve Peters, a former California teacher who runs a pro-Trump activist group, echoed Motely’s concerns. She said she trusts Trump to stay the line on the Second Amendment, despite offering limited compromise.
“I think that our president is trying to be sensitive to what’s going on, it’s a horrible situation,” Peters said. “But I trust our president, absolutely, through and through. If I had any doubts about that, it might be worrisome. But I don’t.”
She judges Rubio differently.
“I don’t have the same confidence in Rubio,” she said. “I’ve lost confidence in Rubio. He just seems a lot more center-to-right than I would prefer. ”
Rick Sellers, who worked for the NRA in 1994 when many members of Congress were ousted after voting for gun restrictions, said Rubio behaved like an eager-to-please politician when he said at the CNN debate that he’d support legislation to prevent 18-year-olds from buying rifles, plus reconsidering his support for large-capacity magazines.
“The political inclination is to agree with whatever the crowd wants to do,” Sellers said. “You want applause from everyone in the crowd and you really can’t do that.”
But Sellers said he’s still skeptical that either politician will buck the NRA.
“There’s been a lot of pressure, but the movement is strong,” he said of gun rights’ activists. He praised Trump for supporting efforts to arm teachers, but criticized the call to lift the legal age for owning a rifle.
“We have guys in the military, fighting and dying overseas but they can’t come home and buy a firearm? That’s absolutely crazy,” Sellers said.
Still, some in the CPAC rank and file said that despite the NRA opposition to raising the legal age, there is support for such a measure.
“Why does an 18 year old need a gun? Can’t they go hunting with an adult?” asked Susie Mihaylo of Phoenix.
Former Michigan Republican Party chair Saul Anuzis said both Trump’s and Rubio’s deviation from the NRA line is to be expected “given the raw feelings” in the aftermath of the latest school shooting.
“There is always a concern of an emotional response that doesn’t necessarily accomplish anything or is necessarily helpful,” he said. “Everyone is looking for easy solutions, the problem is there aren’t any.”
Jeff Johnson, a north Illinois gun owner, said he empathizes with Trump, blaming the media’s emphasis on mass shootings for pushing the politicians.
“The liberal media is making such a big deal about these shootings that he feels he has to do something,” Johnson said of Trump. “They’re at him constantly to do something and in the meantime we have shooting galleries in Chicago.”
California Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox said he, too, feels their pain.
“I get it they want to appear to be coming forward on guns and doing something,” Cox said. He has his own proposal: Asking the media to not release the names of the shooter “and make them famous.
“That’s what they’re seeking, glory,” he said.
And Cox, too, said he’s not opposed to raising the age for owning a gun, noting that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2008 majority decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down a Washington, D.C., handgun ban, allowed for some limits to gun ownership.
“Raising the age, I don’t see that to be a tremendous difficulty,” Cox said.
Nisarg Joshi, 19, a freshman at the University of Maryland, said he was open to Trump’s call to raise the age limit for rifles.
“The number one thing people want in this country is just for something to get done,” Joshi said. “They want to see politicians do something, rather than just kick the can down the road.”
NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch appeared on a CNN Town Hall on guns in Sunrise, Florida and said law enforcement could have done more to stop the Florida school shooting. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said Loesch had her facts wrong. CNN via AP