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Inside the Republican Party’s New Direction on Gun Restrictions

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

It looked like a watershed moment. In the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, President Trump faced the nation’s governors in the grand State Dining Room of the White House on Feb. 26. Trump, the beneficiary of record-breaking campaign funding from the National Rifle Association in 2016, told the governors it was time for them to pick a fight with the gun-rights lobby. “Half of you are so afraid of the NRA,” Trump chided. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

The President is hardly the only Republican to change his tune on guns in the wake of the Feb. 14 killing of 17 people in Parkland, Fla. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, is continuing his work with Democrats to strengthen background-check rules. GOP Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, an NRA favorite, told the audience at a town hall that he would back efforts to raise the age limits for purchasing some weapons to 21 from 18. Trump has proposed to arm educators, while other Republicans are working on plans that would restrict high-capacity magazines like the ones the Parkland shooter is suspected to have used.

Could the tragedy in Parkland have finally changed the minds of the Republicans who resisted gun limits after similar horrors in Newtown, Conn., and San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando? To hear some observers tell it, the catalysts were the poised and passionate young survivors. Pundits saw the shift as a matter of self-preservation; polls show that vast majorities of Americans are out of patience with the status quo. Additional pressure has come from consumers threatening to withhold business from companies like Delta or Hertz that offer discounts to NRA members.

There may be another explanation for the Republicans’ talk of modest new gun restrictions: money. Gun manufacturers are in the midst of the worst business crisis in decades, with double-digit sales drops driving some to the brink of bankruptcy. The NRA, which gets its funding not only from individual members but also major gunmakers, is in a position to help. Nothing gooses gun sales like the threat of new gun-control measures. And behind the scenes, two senior GOP officials tell TIME, the NRA has given lawmakers the green light to float new gun limits without the threat of retribution. The logic: introducing those policies — or even better, debating them — will be good for business. Jennifer Baker, a NRA spokeswoman, denied that her organization made such overtures to Congress and said the NRA’s main concern was not gun sales but rather defending gun rights.

Read more: With Gun Sales Down, the NRA Told Republicans It’s OK to Talk About Gun Control

Gun sales have gone down under Trump

It may seem a paradox that gun manufacturers have suffered during the Trump era. Firearms sales are down across the industry: the combined revenues of Sturm, Ruger & Co.; Vista Outdoor; Winchester; Remington and American Outdoor Brands (formerly known as Smith & Wesson) fell 13% in fiscal 2017. FBI background checks, the metric used as a proxy to track sales, fell 8.4% last year from a record-breaking 2016. It was the largest year-over-year drop this century, and some of the world’s largest gunmakers have cut back on production and slashed payrolls as a result. The slide has shown no sign of stopping: two days before the Parkland shooting, Remington declared it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after its 2017 sales took a 30% nosedive.

The explanation is simple. In the gun industry, fear is good for the bottom line. Under Barack Obama, gun owners rushed to buy firepower they feared was going to be outlawed. As Trump took office, the U.S. gun market was approaching saturation. “Gun owners have what they need,” says Robert Evans of Pennington Capital, a Minneapolis investment firm. “The stockpiling mentality is over and likely won’t change unless you see a new Administration or a change in the makeup of Congress.”

It’s therefore not a little ironic that the NRA spent $54 million helping to elect Trump and other gun-friendly Republicans. Had Hillary Clinton won the White House, gun sales would be soaring to new heights, industry analysts say; after all, in 1994, President Bill Clinton oversaw the nation’s only ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. Polls predicting a second President Clinton drove gun futures into a tizzy. Manufacturers cranked out more firearms than ever in 2016 — over 11 million, according to data released by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The year 2016 was a record year by far, says Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade association. “Everybody understood that that level of sales wasn’t sustainable.” Indeed, the more than 25 million background checks last year was still more than double the total in the years before Obama ran. Much of that inventory backlog is now being sold off at rebate.

From the perspective of gunmakers, something has to be done. Floating new restrictions on gun rights could be the jolt the industry needs to bounce back from its Trump slump, political and industry insiders say. If past is prologue, Keane says, the tragedy in Parkland and the ensuing debate could spur an urgency among Americans to stock up.

The Obama years offer a clear window into this phenomenon. Based on FBI background-check figures, gun sales jumped 42% after Obama won the 2008 election. After the December 2012 shootings in Newtown, background checks rose 49% from the year before. (Obama had won re-election a month earlier.) Following the December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, checks spiked 44%. And when a gunman opened fire at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando in June 2016, background checks leaped 39%.

That isn’t happening in the Trump presidency. “There was some fear-based buying that would take place from time to time,” said James Debney, American Outdoor’s chief executive officer, during a conference call with investors in December. “There is no fear-based buying right now.” In October, the month a shooter killed 58 and injured 851 at a Las Vegas concert—the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history—background checks were down 13% from the previous year.

The NRA and its allies have been adapting to this new economic landscape. After Las Vegas, the NRA signaled that it would not hold against lawmakers any efforts to regulate bump stocks, devices that modify semiautomatic weapons to fire more quickly. Gun enthusiasts rushed to the store to stockpile them. Yet there was no real progress on gun control in Congress in the 136 days between the Las Vegas and Parkland shootings. “Time is the enemy,” explains one Republican consultant. “Every passing day makes this less urgent.”

Talk of gun control boosts sales

The NRA is taking a similar approach after Parkland. Talking about modest gun limits is fine — good for business, actually. Most of the proposals put forth by Republicans boot the issue back to the states, where the GOP has control of 32 legislatures. Gun owners remain a powerful constituency. Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, a lobby representing more than 1.5 million people, said his members are “very vocally opposed to any new gun-control legislation.” Baker of the NRA said members “are energized and spurred into action” when Second Amendment rights are threatened.

One measure in particular could boost the gun-makers’ bottom line. The plan Trump backed to arm some teachers would create hundreds of thousands of new orders. It was lost on no one that the NRA runs one of the largest gun-safety programs in the country, and would be an easy and well-paid partner for superintendents looking to arm math teachers. But in the end, leaders in the Senate and the House are unlikely to go much further than strengthening background checks. “Anything beyond that is wishful thinking,” one Republican Senator says. The NRA’s acquiescence on that issue isn’t cost-free, either. The House last year passed a background-check bill with a key caveat: individuals with conceal-carry permits would have their certification recognized across state lines. It would be yet another boost for the industry. Democrats in the Senate may have to swallow the conceal-carry reciprocity provision as well.

What works for the NRA and the gunmakers also works for the GOP. The party needs money and enthusiasm in a difficult midterm election cycle. Republican strategists cast the gun debate as a way to box in Senate Democrats running for re-election in the red states Trump carried by double digits in 2016.

Trump got the message. In his meeting with governors at the White House, the President outlined several ideas to curb gun violence. Then, just as he was assuring lawmakers they shouldn’t cower to the NRA, Trump let something slip: he had shared a Sunday lunch with NRA executives at the White House. “There’s no bigger fan of the Second Amendment than me,” he said, “and there’s no bigger fan of the NRA.”

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com and W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com