In some ways, Donald Trump is the perfect president for the National Rifle Association’s interests. In his first three months in office, he has signed an executive order to unwind Obama-era gun restrictions, put NRA president Wayne LaPierre at his side during a White House meeting of conservatives, and is spending his 99th day in office speaking to the NRA convention today in Atlanta.
He has a “Second Amendment Advisory Commission” chaired by the NRA’s top lobbyist, and has two sons, Eric and Don Jr., who are well-known lovers of shooting things. Wayne LaPierre even scored an invite to the White House Easter Egg Roll.
But the Trump era hasn’t been all good news for the NRA and the gun industry.
For one thing, having a President Trump in the White House hasn’t been very good for business. Unlike the boom years under President Barack Obama, when gun sales spiked and reached an all-time high in 2016, gun sales have dropped since Trump was elected.
The number of instant FBI background checks, which is the best indicator of new firearms sales, dropped by about 1 million applications in the first two months after Trump was elected, compared to the same time a year before, and were down again in February and March.
Experts in the gun industry said that fear of gun restrictions under Obama played a key role in the sky-high gun sales while he was president. “Political concern, concern that there would be increased firearms laws especially at the federal level, was certainly a component,” said Mike Bazinet, the director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told The Daily Beast, although he added that gun sales remain strong.
A Trump presidency, with a Republican controlled House and Senate and 31 Republican governors, is also testing the lengths the NRA can go to without running into a backlash from voters, especially in the highly educated suburban districts where Trump struggled in 2016.
In Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, which sits about 10 miles north of the convention center where the NRA is holding this weekend’s convention, Democrats involved in the special election to replace Rep. Tom Price there said a bill passed by the Georgia legislature allowing guns on college campuses has came up again and again in their conversations with voters.
“We weren’t expecting the state bill to be an issue, but campus carry has come up on the doors, at house parties, pretty much everywhere,” said one Democrat involved in the campaign. “Voters, especially women, moms, and teachers, are raising it with us.”
In the days leading up to the primary, the NRA’s Political Victory Fund ran robocalls against Ossoff, who opposes the measure. They warned voters, “Don’t let Nancy Pelosi steal this election, or your freedom.” But the calls to voters in the changing district never mentioned guns or the Second Amendment. Ossoff ended up with 48 percent of the vote in the 6th District primary, where which Trump won by just one point, and will face Republican Karen Handel in a June runoff. Handel’s campaign did not respond to a request for her position on the issue.
Georgia’s Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who is speaking at the NRA convention, vetoed a broader campus carry bill last year. But he still hasn’t said how he’ll handle the follow-up bill, which the Republican legislature passed again this year. An Atlanta-Journal Constitution poll showed 54 percent of Georgians opposed to guns on college campuses.
Enthusiasm for NRA bills across the country has been lagging in other red states across the country, too. Since January, bills to allow people to carry a gun without a permit have failed in 10 states, including in Georgia, Kentucky, Utah, and Virginia where state legislatures are Republican-controlled, and in South Dakota, where Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed the measure. Bills to allow guns in K-12 schools also failed Republican legislatures in North Dakota and Kentucky, while a campus carry bill was defeated in deep red Wyoming.
On the other side of the issue, gun safety advocates said they’ve seen a significant increase in interest and volunteers since Trump’s election.
“If anything, what we’re seeing since the election is that people are more energized,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “Just in the number of volunteers, we almost can’t keep up with it.”
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, said her group’s number of active volunteers has gone up from 4,000 to nearly 45,000. “We now have moms in every state in the country getting ready for the elections that are coming up in 2018, so what we can do in swing states and other areas is going to be pretty significant.”
Although the NRA remains powerful and well financed, losing President Obama as their animating enemy and replacing him with Donald Trump means Republicans will own any major changes to gun-related legislation for better or worse.