Politics & Government

Trump gun proposal meets conservative opposition

President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, in Oxon Hill, Md.Some conservatives disagree with his proposal to raise the age limit for purchasing certain rifles.
President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, in Oxon Hill, Md.Some conservatives disagree with his proposal to raise the age limit for purchasing certain rifles. AP

President Donald Trump's gun control proposal is already running into Republican resistance, as conservatives from across the country suggested in interviews Friday that they will not line up behind their leader on this issue.

Trump has outlined a wide-ranging series of proposals to combat gun violence in the wake of a massacre at a Florida high school that killed 17 last week. One measure: "raise age to 21," he tweeted this week. That move to raise the age for buying certain weapons has support from a number of Republican lawmakers--most significantly, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who on Friday proposed raising the minimum age for purchasing any firearm from 18 to 21.

But conservative officials and activists are signaling significant discomfort with that idea, which is opposed by the powerful National Rifle Association.

"I don't know that there's going to be enough support in the House to get that passed," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told McClatchy here on the sidelines of the Conservative Political Action Conference. He didn't rule it out entirely, and added that lawmakers are looking at a “comprehensive” package, but continued, "Obviously, everyone is in the information-gathering mode at this point and it will be difficult, based on the members that I've talked to at this point, to get enough support."

In interviews, conservative sources repeatedly said that if a person is old enough to join the military at 18, he or she should also be considered old enough to purchase a semi-automatic weapon.

"If a man or woman can join the military at 18, we can trust them with that kind of service, should we be restricting their rights to own a weapon?" asked Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL who is running in a contested Republican House primary in the Houston area. "Is it going to accomplish what we hope it will? I'm not so sure."

Added Chris McDaniel, a deeply conservative Mississippi state senator who is eyeing higher office: “Although I support President Trump, I respectfully disagree with him on this issue. If an individual is old enough to serve in the military, to fight and die for our country, then obviously his Second Amendment right to firearms should not be infringed.”

Indeed, this is proving to be the rare issue where the president’s strongest supporters are finding reason to differ with him—even as they take great pains to stress that the disagreement is with the policy, and that their overall support for Trump is undiminished.

Steve Scheffler, the Republican national committeeman from Iowa, is such a dedicated Trump supporter that he repeatedly compared him, favorably, to conservative icon Ronald Reagan in an interview with McClatchy last month. But on this proposal, he too has reservations.

"That's probably the only piece I don't agree with," he said, stressing that this didn't mean he was "beating up" on Trump. "We ask our young men and women to go into combat zones when they're under 21."

Raising the age limit for buying weapons such as semi-automatic rifles is just one element of a laundry list of proposals Trump has put forth. He has also placed significant emphasis on arming certain school officials who also have previous military experience or are otherwise trained—an idea Scheffler and other conservatives support. That—not raising the age limit—was the focus of his CPAC speech Friday.

On Capitol Hill, there is also a long list of proposals to combat gun violence, including a bipartisan measure that would raise the age for buying semi-automatic rifles from licensed dealers from 18 to 21 for non-military purchasers—“the same age you currently have to be to purchase a handgun,” tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican pushing the measure.

But on the campaign trail and in conservative grassroots circles, resistance to the age-restricting proposal is hardening.

“I truly just do not see raising the age of purchase for a rifle to be a deterrent overall to these bloodbaths we are seeing perpetrated,” said Mark Harris, who is waging a primary challenge against Rep. Robert Pittenger, a North Carolina Republican. “I would have to see much more evidence of it being a deterrent. Enforcement of existing laws, on the other hand, must be our focus.”

Alabama state Rep. Barry Moore, who is primarying Republican Rep. Martha Roby, was open about his conflicting views on the issue. He initially said that he was inclined to be “OK with that”—noting that teenagers could still hunt with their parents—but ultimately concluded: “The more I think through the process, I don’t see another gun law being the solution. We’ve got enough on the books, we need to enforce the ones we’ve got.”

Brendan Steinhauser, a conservative strategist based in Texas, said he expected that the proposal “won’t be super popular among the grassroots, NRA members.” And had the age limits proposal come from someone else—for example, President Barack Obama—the outcry would be overwhelming, he noted.

“I think people would be outraged, saying, ‘that’s not a solution, why are you taking away the Constitutional rights of millions of people to try to solve a problem that could be solved in other ways…this is evidence Obama wants to start here, what’s next, total confiscation?’” he said.

Certainly, the pushback has been considerably more muted—and “it is because, 100 percent because of tribalism, party loyalty, not wanting to criticize Trump,” he said.

Of course, there are also Republicans who support the measure—or are willing to go further. A number of GOP lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, have indicated support for raising the age limit for certain rifles. Vice President Mike Pence also didn’t shy away from again mentioning raising the age limit while speaking at an event on Friday.

Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican and a veteran, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times expressing support for a ban on future purchase of assault weapons.

And even Kelli Ward, who is running as a conservative candidate in the contested Arizona Senate primary, didn’t rule out the proposal, saying “it has to be on the table” even as she questioned the need for more gun laws.

“I’m comfortable with raising the age,” said former Arizona Republican Chairman Robert Graham, a Trump ally who described a longtime affinity for the NRA. “I believe that the three-year period in between there is not going to shake the industry.”

At least, he added, as long as the measure doesn’t lead to more far-reaching gun control laws.

“It’s time, it has to be addressed, I now would say I’m supportive of it,” he said, “if it doesn’t lead to gun control—real gun control.”

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark