Of all the issues that Donald Trump ran on, the one he was arguably the most consistent and clear about was his support for Second Amendment rights. In return, the National Rifle Association committed to Trump wholeheartedly. “The NRA stood by Trump from the get-go. They backed him early on with a major spending campaign,” notes Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and the author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “They are tight with Trump Administration. They have their people in place and they know exactly what they’re going for.”
And now, with the prospect of a Clinton administration gone, gun advocates are celebrating. “I think the future looks pretty bright for us right now,” says Todd Rathner, a prominent gun rights lobbyist. Gun owners, he says, are eager to go on the offensive. So what happens next?
Most immediately, President Barack Obama’s executive orders on guns will be gone. (Obama has signed orders requiring more gun sellers to conduct background checks, requiring dealers to report lost or stolen guns, establishing an investigation center to track online gun trafficking, and launching research into gun safety technology.) “They’re going to overturn almost everything that Obama did,” Winkler says.
Next up is the Supreme Court. When the NRA magazine America’s 1st Freedom asked Trump whether he would consider the Second Amendment when nominating the next Supreme Court justice, he replied, “100 percent. I will appoint judges who will preserve our Second Amendment rights.” Gun owners are salivating at the implications of Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment, though not necessarily for obvious reasons. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court’s most avid supporter of the Second Amendment and the author of the Heller decision, was a blow to the gun lobby. Yet even with Scalia in the court, there was not sufficient support to review the constitutionality of unsettled issues like assault weapons bans, high-capacity magazine bans, and restrictions on concealed carry. “These are all issues that arose when Justice Scalia was still on the court, and the court did not have the four votes necessary to take any of those cases,” Winkler says. “The fact that his replacement will be a strong supporter of the Second Amendment doesn’t really change the dynamic of the Supreme Court. But what it does do is extend that support for the Second Amendment for the next 30 years. That’s a big win for the NRA.”
Rathner agrees. “The bottom line is that this whole election for gun owners in general was all about one thing: the Supreme Court,” he says. “All of these other things, these legislative issues, they come and go in terms of what administration and what legislative makeup you have at the time. But the effect that the Supreme Court can have on the Second Amendment is generational.”
Of the 21 names of possible justices Trump has released, the NRA considers none of them “non-starters,” an NRA spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal. But the gun lobby has some favorites, including Judge Bill Prior of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, who once described victims of violence and local and state governments that sued gun manufacturers as “leftist bounty hunters.”
Beyond undoing Obama’s executive orders and filling the Supreme Court seats with justices sympathetic to gun rights, Trump will also affect future legislation. There are already bills designed to loosen gun laws that have been lingering on the back burner in Congress. “Gun owners are looking at an opportunity to go on the offense at the federal level. There are a number of different bills that we could be pursuing,” Rathner says. Most prominently among those bills is national reciprocity, which would guarantee that people with concealed-carry permits in one state could carry their guns in any other state. “A concealed-carry permit would be treated like a driver’s license. When you drive across state lines, you don’t worry that your license won’t be honored. We need that for concealed weapons permits,” Rathner says.
Winkler, however, notes some potential problems with this. Reciprocity, depending on how the bill is finalized, could require a state like California to recognize a concealed-carry permit issued in a state like Utah. “In Utah, you don’t have to be a resident to get a concealed carry permit,” says Winkler. “So someone who is in Los Angeles and who cannot get a concealed-carry permit can go get one in Utah, and then under national reciprocity, depending on how the bill gets shaped, California would have to recognize that.”
If the NRA could act without any opposition, it would prefer “constitutional carry,” which would get rid of concealed-carry permits entirely. But that would likely still encounter resistance. “I support constitutional carry, but if we can’t get the Senate to go there, then certainly having reciprocity is a great step,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m willing to accept a little more freedom even though I’d prefer a lot more.”
Trump’s election will also influence state politics. “When you have an election like this one, it wakes people up,” says Rathner. At the local and state levels, “it emboldens people in various ways to want to run pro-Second Amendment legislation.” Winkler notes that the NRA and other gun rights organizations have been “very successful” at the state level. “There are at least 30 states that have Republican control of the assembly and the governor,” he says. The impact of that can be seen in outcomes like the passage of Georgia’s so-called “Guns Everywhere” law, which allows guns pretty much everywhere, including bars.
“In all honesty, we have made a lot of advances in the past 20 years,” Rathner says. “We haven’t had any major setbacks at the state level other than the coastal strongholds.” But even in California, which recently passed a major package of gun laws in the Legislature and also through a ballot measure, pro-gun advocates feel empowered. Chuck Michel, the president of the California Rifle & Pistol Association, the state’s official NRA affiliate, is planning legal action against the new gun laws. “Gun owners have now woken up and will engage to a degree that they haven’t before,” he says.
And even if gun advocates get everything they want in the next couple of years, there’s also a good chance that Trump will get to appoint more than one Supreme Court justice. If that happens? “Well then, everything changes,” says Winkler. For years, the gun lobby’s favorite myth was that the government was coming for everyone’s guns. With the election of Trump, the inverse may be coming true. The guns are coming for the government.