INDIANAPOLIS — Top Republican hopefuls for the 2024 presidential race vowed Friday at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention to defend the Second Amendment at all costs.
The three-day gathering with thousands of the organization’s most active members at Indianapolis’ convention center came mere days after mass shootings at a school in Nashville and a bank in Louisville, Ky. The convention also fell on the second anniversary of the mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis that killed nine people.
“Gun-hating politicians should never go to bed unafraid of what this association, and all of our millions of members, can do to their political careers,” said NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, suggesting that his group could play a dominant role in the 2024 election after turmoil in recent years over a failed bankruptcy effort, a class action lawsuit and a fraud investigation.
Instead of fewer guns, former Vice President Mike Pence called for federal funding for armed school officers and more institutions for the mentally ill, though mental illness is not the main driver of mass shootings. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he had resisted implementing any gun restrictions in his state despite that stance being unpopular.
Former President Donald Trump crowned himself as “the most pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment president” in the nation’s history.
“I will be your loyal friend and fearless champion once again as the 47th president of the United States,” he told the crowd, pledging to create a new tax credit to reimburse teachers “for the full cost of a concealed-carry firearm,” as well as gun training “from highly-qualified experts.”
Some of the Republican politicians speaking at the event said they were saddened by the recent shootings, but most spent more time criticizing Democrats, slamming covid-19 restrictions and vaccines, and discussing security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump’s appearance was his first public event since being arrested and arraigned in New York last week on felony charges stemming from a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 campaign. His Secret Service protection meant attendees couldn’t carry guns at the convention.
The former president made a few references to the numerous investigations he’s facing. Instead of the government going after hardened criminals, he complained, “The only one they want to prosecute is Donald Trump.”
Friday’s appearance was the first time he and Pence have addressed the same campaign event on the same day since their estrangement following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Pence is considering his own 2024 bid.
A former Indiana governor, Pence drew scattered boos as he started speaking, despite it being his home turf. Taking the stage later, Trump said he hoped the crowd had given his former vice president a warm introduction.
Pence noted the two recent mass shootings and said his heart and prayers were with the families of the victims. But he said, “We don’t need gun control. We need crime control.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Trump critic who announced his 2024 campaign after news of the former president’s indictment broke, drew at least one obscenity from the Trump-friendly crowd after he suggested President Joe Biden was “praying” for a rematch with Trump in 2024 and declared, “We don’t need a rerun of 2020.”
Others offering video messages were former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who began her 2024 campaign in February, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who announced a presidential exploratory committee this week. DeSantis also spoke briefly in virtual remarks.
“I’ve resisted calls to take up gun control, even when such a stand is superficially unpopular,” DeSantis said, a reference to calls for stricter Florida laws in the wake of the 2018 Parkland school shooting that killed 17 people.
Pain over the Louisville and Nashville shooting rampages has crossed party lines. Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear talked about having a friend killed in the Louisville shooting, while Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said he had friends killed during the Nashville school attack.
Friday’s convention largely belonged to Trump, who drew the loudest cheers from the crowd.
Donna Alberts, who traveled around 600 miles from Greenbrier, Ark., for the convention, said nothing could sway her vote for Trump in 2024.
“He’s a good man,” Alberts said, “and he does what he says he’s going to do, and he loves this country.”
Information for this article was contributed by Jill Colvin, Alanna Durkin Richer, Arleigh Rodgers and Hannah Fingerhut of The Associated Press.