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A Massachusetts Air National Guard member who has emerged as a main person of interest in the disclosure of highly classified military documents on the Ukraine war was taken into custody Thursday by federal agents. Attorney General Merrick Garland made the announcement at the Justice Department Thursday. (13 April 2023)
WASHINGTON – Undeterred by recent mass shootings, Donald Trump and other Republican presidential hopefuls pledged their fealty to gun owners’ rights during a Friday convention of the National Rifle Association.
While mass killings in Nashville and Louisville put more political pressure on Republicans to support some kind of gun control, the Republicans told the powerful gun lobby that the Second Amendment is sacrosanct.
“This is not a gun problem, this is a mental health problem, this is a social problem, this is a cultural problem, this is a spiritual problem,” Trump said during a candidate forum sponsored by the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.
The National Rifle Association held its convention in Indianapolis within two weeks of two more mass shootings, one at a school in Nashville and the other at a bank in Louisville.
Democrats jeered the GOP for its parade of candidates before the NRA and said guns will be a major issue throughout the 2024 election year.
The “Republican extreme records on guns will be on full display” throughout the campaign, said Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The GOP candidates visited the NRA in very different political positions. Trump is dealing with his recent indictment, while prospective rivals like Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley are looking for traction in the still-evolving 2024 Republican presidential race.
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Trump’s legal issues
Seeking legal as well as political support, Trump told NRA delegates he is being investigated by the same kind of people who want to confiscate guns.
Playing to the crowd, Trump proposed what he called “National Concealed Carry Reciprocity,” forcing pro-gun control states to let visitors carry weapons if they have permits issued by other states. He also proposed a tax credit for teachers to offset the costs of firearms training and touted the pro-gun judges he appointed during his term in office.
Trump, who saw several mass shootings during his presidency, has always backed NRA-backed gun policies, and credited the group with giving him a huge political boost during his first presidential campaign in 2016.
At one point in a long speech, Trump spent several minutes talking about 2024 Republican polls and mocking his rivals. He repeatedly mangled DeSantis’ name and joked about Haley’s low polling.
Trump addressed the gun lobby ten days after pleading not guilty in New York City to charges of falsifying business records in order to cover up hush money payments and campaign finance violations.
On Thursday, Trump spent some seven hours in a lawyer’s office for a deposition in a fraud lawsuit filed against him by New York Attorney General Letitia James. Trump attorney Christopher Kise said Trump ran a successful business and eventually “everyone will scoff at the notion any fraud took place.”
During Friday’s speech, Trump reminded the gun owners that James filed a 2020 lawsuit against the NRA.
DeSantis on the verge
DeSantis, who also made campaign-like appearances in Virginia and New Hampshire on Friday, spoke to the NRA via video with a 3-minute speech focused on the subject at hand.
Citing his record as governor of Florida, DeSantis said “we’ve gone on offense to expand individual gun rights.”
DeSantis is expected to announce a 2024 candidacy after the Florida Legislature adjourns in May. The session has featured passage of a number of DeSantis-backed measures that could well surface in a presidential campaign.
Among them: a bill that will allow Florida residents to carry concealed guns without permits.
Haley vs. Trump vs. DeSantis
Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, spoke for less than a minute via video, telling NRA delegates that her daughter is getting married this weekend.
Proclaiming a lifelong commitment to gun rights and the Second Amendment, Haley said she is “a concealed weapons permit holder myself” and that her husband is a hunter.
“You’ve always got a partner in me,” Haley told NRA delegates.
Haley did not mention two other Republicans who have dominated her campaign of late: Trump and DeSantis, both of whom enjoy leads over her in early polling.
In a memo to donors, the Haley campaign denounced Trump’s indictment as “outrageous prosecutorial abuse,” while also suggesting it would be a major distraction for him.
“It’s increasingly clear that Trump’s candidacy is more consumed by the grievances of the past and the promise of more drama in the future, rather than a forward-looking vision for the American people,” the memo said.
As for DeSantis, the Haley campaign cited changing views on aid to Ukraine and questionable campaign skills. The memo said DeSantis has “made one misstep after another, confirming what many observers have long suspected: he’s not ready for prime time.”
Pence calls for improved mental health programs
Pence, the former vice president, said that he and other members of the Trump administration “stood without apology for the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”
The former governor of Indiana reminded NRA members of the high number of conservative judges the Trump administration picked for the Supreme Court and lower courts, and their rulings in favor of gun rights and against abortion.
Citing the recent shootings, Pence said he mourns the victims. He also said that Biden and the Democrats are offering “tired arguments” for “gun control and gun confiscation.” He instead called for improved mental health programs to help troubled youths, more security officers in schools, and a federal death penalty statute for mass shooters.
The NRA meeting came at an interesting time for Pence. He is expected to testify soon to a grand jury about his dealings with Trump in and around the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.
Pence has said Trump was wrong to demand that he throw out electoral votes favorable to Biden, but he has otherwise defended Trump amid the many investigations of the ex-president.
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Other presidential aspirants addressing the National Rifle Association are looking to build their political profiles.
Tim Scott, a senator from South Carolina, spoke by video and stressed his congressional record against gun control supporters who want to leave Americans “unsafe” and “unarmed.”
Scott announced just this week that he has formed an exploratory committee, a major step toward a possible 2024 presidential candidacy.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a businessman who built a brand by opposing so-called “woke” social policies, told the NRA that a “mental health epidemic” is the biggest reason for mass shootings.
Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, said he would also defend the Second Amendment and called for better security in schools.
In past weeks, Hutchinson has called on Trump to suspend his campaign because of the indictment. He did not mention Trump by name during his NRA appearance, but did suggest that the Republicans should not re-nominate the former president by saying “we don’t need a rerun of 2020.”
Two other NRA speakers are also said to be considering presidential bids: New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
In addition to the NRA, Trump, Pence, and perhaps others are expected to address a closed-door Republican donor retreat in Nashville, Tennessee, the city that was the site of the shooting that killed three children and three adult staff members at a Christian school.
Nashville is also the city where Republican members of the state Legislature expelled two Democrats for disrupting a meeting to protest the lack of action on gun control. The two members have since been re-appointed.