Former US Vice President Mike Pence was booed at the annual meeting of the United States’s largest gun rights lobby even as he sought to present himself as a more determined defender of gun rights than his one-time boss Donald Trump.
Pence and Trump were among the top Republican hopefuls for the 2024 presidential race at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) three-day gathering in Indianapolis, with both promising to defend Americans’ right to bear arms at all costs.
The NRA’s most ardent members are meeting just days after mass shootings at a school in Nashville and a bank in Louisville that killed 11 people, including children. Last year’s convention followed the attack on a primary school in Uvalde in which 19 children were killed.
Boos rang out across the conference room as Pence, a former Indiana governor, took the stage to deliver his speech in an indication of the tough battle he is likely to face if he decides to take on Trump for the Republican nomination.
Many Trump supporters have soured on Pence because he refused to back the former president’s false claims of widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential election and overturn Trump’s election loss in his former capacity as president of the US Senate.
“I love you too,” Pence joked to the crowd of hundreds, many of them wearing Trump-themed T-shirts and red baseball hats.
Pence, who has a “gold-plated rating” from the gun lobby for his stance on gun rights, called for armed officers at all schools and speedier executions of shooters.
“I believe the time has come to institute a federal death penalty statute, with an accelerated appeal, to ensure those who engage in mass shootings face execution in months, not years,” Pence said.
Trump, meanwhile, used the forum to declare himself “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,” Trump promised, revealing plans to give a tax credit to reimburse teachers who obtain a concealed-carry weapon and get training “from highly-qualified experts”.
Pandering to the extremes
The conference is taking place at a key moment in the Republican presidential campaign.
Pence and a number of other hopefuls, including Trump’s closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, are deciding whether to jump into the 2024 race to challenge the former president for the nomination.
DeSantis, Senator Tim Scott and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley addressed the NRA by video message.
DeSantis, who has not yet confirmed he will run, extolled a recent Florida law allowing residents to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.
“Because of our efforts in Florida, we now have a majority of states in this country that recognise such a right,” he said.
The parade of prominent politicians shows that the NRA event remains a rite of passage for Republican hopefuls, despite the corruption accusations and legal problems faced by the group as well as media reports of dwindling membership.
“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,” NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency.
Richard Feldman, a member and former NRA lobbyist, said he expected the gun group to endorse Trump eventually because its most vocal membership base – which draws heavily from a white, rural and male population subset – still supports him.
“The NRA is still the granddaddy of the guns lobby. The NRA-endorsed candidate in a Republican primary is very important,” he told the Reuters news agency.
Even if the NRA does endorse Trump, the group, faced with a major lawsuit in New York and falling revenue, according to some reports, is unlikely to provide the same financial support as in past elections.
Spending has already decreased: The NRA spent some $54.4m during the 2016 election, including $31.2m for Trump’s campaign but that fell to $29.1m in the 2020 cycle, the bulk of it for Trump’s campaign, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan research organisation that tracks US advocacy dollars.
The gun rights lobby has also come under pressure from the, at least, 149 mass shootings around the country since the start of the year.
“Republican primary hopefuls are descending on Indianapolis to pander to the NRA’s extreme leaders for support that will be poison in a general election,” said Shannon Watts, founder of gun control group Moms Demand Action.
President Joe Biden’s administration, which has pushed gun regulations, on Friday said the NRA should be addressing the “soaring number of children” killed with guns instead of resisting “common-sense” measures that would save lives.