Republican 2024 Hopefuls Flock to N.R.A. Meeting in the Wake of Mass Shootings

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INDIANAPOLIS — In 2018, prominent Republicans affirmed their strong support for gun owners’ rights at the annual gathering of the National Rifle Association, three months after a gunman had murdered 17 people in Parkland, Fla.

In 2022, they descended on the N.R.A.’s event a few days after a gunman had killed 21 in Uvalde, Texas.

And on Friday, some of the most talked about current and potential Republican presidential candidates will address the N.R.A.’s convention in Indianapolis, even as Nashville and Louisville are still mourning the latest massacres in the nation’s gun violence epidemic.

The pattern — a devastating mass shooting, followed by Republican displays of fealty to a group that rejects even many modest efforts to curb gun violence — underscores a central and deepening tension in the broader American culture wars.

Despite a relentless drumbeat of gun violence that has outraged the public, galvanized a youth movement and spurred Democrats and some Republicans to action, conservative activists and organizations like the N.R.A. still often demand unwavering and virtually unlimited allegiance to the rights of gun owners, complicating any effort by candidates to meet the alarmed mood of the nation without alienating the base.

“I would hope that presidential candidates would acknowledge that there is tremendous fear in the country of mass shootings,” former Representative Susan W. Brooks, an Indiana Republican, said in urging the candidates to press for bipartisan negotiations on confronting the issue. That is something she pursued in Congress, though there is now little appetite for that among Republicans in Washington.

“They’re happening at much greater frequency than they used to,” she added of the shootings. “They are impacting, I think, our children and the next generation.”

Expected speakers on Friday, according to the N.R.A.’s lobbying arm, include former President Donald J. Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, Governors Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur, author and “anti-woke” activist.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who recently signed a bill allowing Florida residents to carry concealed guns without a permit; Nikki Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations; and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina are scheduled to send video messages.

“They are all going because there’s a competitive presidential primary,” said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster. “In states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which are really the only states that matter on the calendar for the time being, most Republican primary voters are gun owners and strong supporters of the N.R.A.”

The N.R.A. meeting was on the books well before the most recent shootings, though according to the latest schedule, the violence did not appear to prompt high-profile skipping of the event, in contrast to the actions of some Republicans who did so after the Uvalde shooting.

Some of those current and would-be candidates are also expected in Nashville this weekend for a Republican donor retreat — a site that has left some in the grieving city on edge.

Following the mass shootings at a bank this week in Louisville, Ky., and at a Nashville school last month, presidential hopefuls, expressing varying degrees of outrage, have emphasized mental health issues and school security, seemed to focus on the gender identity of the Nashville shooter, or managed to keep largely quiet on the matter of combating gun violence.

But the issue, which inspires great zeal among many Republican primary voters — as evidenced by how many Republicans featured guns in their primary ad campaigns last year — gets far more complex in general elections, especially for any candidate who would theoretically be inclined to endorse even narrow changes to the nation’s gun laws.

Voters rarely cite guns as their most important issue in general elections. But public sentiment is clear: A recent Morning Consult poll found that 67 percent of voters support stricter gun control laws, including nearly half of Republicans surveyed. And Democrats have used Republican inaction on the issue as part of their broader argument that the G.O.P. is outside the American mainstream.

“One of the challenges that Republicans face in suburban areas across the country is they are being viewed, in light of Trump, in light of abortion, and to some extent on guns,” Mr. Blizzard said, “as being a little bit too extreme on their positions.”

He stressed that the gun issue had not been as politically potent in general elections as strong feelings about Mr. Trump or abortion rights, and that the defense of Second Amendment rights “is part of the Republican Party’s DNA.”

The political impact of mass shootings has not been lost on Republican leaders, however. Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said as much last year as the Senate approved bipartisan legislation intended to curb gun violence. Mr. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said he hoped “it will be viewed favorably by voters in the suburbs we need.”

In a briefing with the news media on Thursday organized by the Democratic National Committee, Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, a Democrat who has been heavily involved in efforts to combat gun violence, said that Republicans were courting electoral disaster with their approach to guns.

He noted that in Nashville, it was young people who were especially involved in protesting for stricter gun control, including amid the expulsions of two Black lawmakers who led a gun control protest on the state House floor. (The lawmakers have since been reinstated.)

“As the Republican Party continues to give the middle finger to kids,” he said, “they are just asking for an electoral tidal wave. I don’t want that. I want Republicans to join with the rest of us and work to build a bipartisan majority behind common-sense gun laws. But it appears that they’re not ready for that.”

Representatives for the N.R.A. and the Republican National Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

For now, much of the activity is happening through executive actions, at the federal and state levels. Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, a Republican whose wife lost a close friend in the Nashville shooting, signed an executive order this week focused on toughening background checks, and he urged state lawmakers to take broader action, though that may face a difficult road.

And in Michigan on Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, signed anti-gun-violence measures into law following a recent shooting at Michigan State University. Minnesota Democrats are moving to do the same.

Mayor Tim Kelly of Chattanooga, Tenn., who said he is not affiliated with a political party but has contributed to both Republicans and to Democrats including Mr. Biden, has been a vocal advocate for stricter gun measures. He said he was encouraged by Mr. Lee’s actions.

“To see him change his views on it — frankly, I do have hope that perhaps we’re reaching a tipping point,” said Mr. Kelly, who said he is himself a gun owner. “People have just had enough.”

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