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America pivots on the issue of gun control

A rally against gun violence in Florida, with Stoneman Douglas survivors leading the way. Picture: Joe Rondone/Tallahassee Democrat via USA TODAY NETWORK /Sipa USA - Credit: SIPA USA/PA Images

POTUS is not the only one cowering away from the gun control debate, as new polls suggest little faith in change.

The political bullets over gun control are flying in all directions and Donald Trump is ducking, diving and diverting desperately. But he’s far from alone in that as Republican and Democrat leaders on Capitol Hill try to calculate how a protracted polarising debate on the issue will impact on November’s mid-term elections.

For GOP strategists there is the dilemma over whether to support the modest ‘reforms’ initially advocated by the president set against the red lines being laid down by the NRA, whose backing and big bucks did much to put him in the White House.

With opinion polls showing public support for stricter gun laws running at up to 70% (the highest level since 1993) and with 49% of Republicans and 57% of gun-owning households in favour, it might appear something of a no-brainer. Not least with the mobilisation of a protest movement spearheaded by impassioned, articulate, media-savvy young Americans that is gathering momentum and the massive level of media coverage that has triggered both domestically and globally.

Certainly the fallout from the Valentine’s Day massacre at the Stoneman Douglas High School, in which 17 people were killed, genuinely appears to have shifted public opinion in a way other mass shootings (including even the Sandy Hook elementary school slaughter) failed to do. In the wake of last year’s Las Vegas country music bloodbath, where 58 were killed and 851 wounded, the number of Americans backing tighter gun laws was significantly less.

Now, according to new polls, 87% of Americans back banning felons and those with mental health problems owning guns; 71% favour raising the age limit for owning a gun to 21 and 63% support outlawing high-capacity automatic weapons.

But if that all sounds positive and a cause for hope, the polls also revealed a depressing negative. The vast majority of those polled were highly-sceptical about Congress, or the president himself, doing much to put any major gun control reform legislation in place. Only 19% expressed optimism on that front.

That may well explain why – in the aftermath of the Florida school horror – Trump’s personal approval revival since January has suddenly backfired and sunk to 35%, the lowest of his presidency to date.

For GOP strategists there is also the caveat that opinion poll surges like the current one in favour of stricter gun control traditionally tend to run out of steam. And that partly explains why the GOP leadership is trying to keep its head down as much as possible while waiting to see how sustained the protest movement generated by those young Americans proves to be, along with how long-lasting this week’s opinion poll results turn out to be and how many more US corporate giants continue to sever their links with the NRA.

Then there is the little matter of Trump himself… a president prone like no other to mood swings and policy priority switches governed by personal whim or the latest Fox News take.

If anyone was in much doubt about that, they only had to compare and contrast Trump dancing to the tune of the NRA when he addressed CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) late last week with the president who had spent the previous two days solemnly proclaiming his willingness to find compromise on gun control and contending he wasn’t in awe of an NRA backlash.

It was a classic Trump pivot. To an audience of Florida massacre survivors, he was the voice of expanded background checks, raising the age of buying a rifle from 18 to 21 and banning ‘bump stock’ devices that turn semi-automatic weapons into machine guns. To the CPAC audience, with its hefty NRA presence and parade of ‘Make America Great Again’ T-shirts, he was back in election campaign mode as the ‘NRA’s greatest ever friend in the White House’. The president for whom heat-packing teachers represents a ‘realistic’ response mechanism.

Intriguingly, Ivanka Trump was among those to publicly question her father’s ‘arm the teachers’ agenda. But the president’s appetite for taking on the NRA noticeably waned after he had a weekend lunch with two of its leaders and then stepped up his depiction of the organisation as ‘American heroes’ and ‘true patriots’.

Nevertheless Trump’s armed teacher proposal is gaining relatively little traction among the majority of GOP lawmakers or law enforcement professionals, while Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott, normally an NRA ally, has come out in opposition.

Wilful blindness would be one way to describe the president’s conviction that a teacher with a concealed handgun is the answer to a crazed attacker using a high-velocity military weapon capable of blasting through walls, doors and windows, as was the case in the Florida school tragedy. While the president’s boast that he would have rushed in unarmed to tackle the gunman sparked much social media mockery; inevitably reviving the story of how Trump dodged the Vietnam war draft five times, citing curious bone spurs in his feet that subsequently didn’t impair his golf swing.

Meanwhile it has emerged that Nikolas Cruz, the former pupil charged with the Florida shootings, had honed his skills at a school gun club supported by the NRA.

During a tense moment on Monday when state governors gathered at a White House briefing, Washington governor Jay Inslee – touted as a potential 2020 Democrat presidential candidate – confronted the president directly over his armed teacher war cry, telling him: ‘We need a little less tweeting here, a little more listening. Let’s just take that off the table and move forward.’ Trump didn’t respond verbally to Inslee, but stood instead with his arms folded and wearing a wounded expression.

For its part the NRA has shrewdly played into Trump’s obsessive hatred of the media, with one of its senior spokesmen Dana Loesch taunting reporters at that earlier CPAC rally: ‘Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it, I’m not saying you guys love the tragedy but you love the ratings… crying white mothers are ratings gold.’

By way of return, the president used his CPAC platform to revive his ‘enemy of the people’ attack line against the media and closed his speech by echoing the NRA mantra that the Democrats are hellbent on ‘taking away your second amendment’.

With the NRA making it clear it won’t support even modest gun control reform, Democrats and moderate Republican politicians question whether the president will eventually retreat from supporting stronger background checks, let alone lowering the gun-buying age or outlawing bump stocks.

The fact that Democrats ‘taking away your second amendment’ is a total nonsense isn’t the point, of course. It would require two-thirds majorities in both Houses of Congress and 38 out of the 50 US state legislatures to achieve that, and not even the most optimistic pro-gun control Democrats pretend there’s the remotest possibility of that happening.

But what Trump is counting on (and some moderate Republicans privately, pragmatically concede) is that by stoking up illogical fear of losing the right to bear arms, he is winning over far-right and grassroots Republicans ahead of the November mid-terms. In short, scaring them into turning out to vote.

By doing so, the president is singing along with the NRA’s constant refrain: Give an inch on gun control and you start on a slippery slope where armed government agents turn up at your home and take away your weapons at gunpoint.

With opinion polls suggesting the Democrats are well-placed to capture the lower House in November and in with a fighting chance of winning the Senate too, it is perhaps little wonder that few senior GOP figures are inclined to flag up the absurdity of that fake sell, or Trump’s contradictory pledges, depending on which audience he’s playing to in whichever moment.

Even so, Republican strategists recoiled when Trump’s own re-election campaign team crassly emailed out a political donation appeal featuring a photo of the president and First Lady visiting 17-year-old Florida massacre survivor Madeleine Wilford and her family in hospital. Similarly, a social media firestorm erupted over insensitive images of Trump grinning inanely and giving a thumbs up sign as he posed alongside serious-faced doctors and first responders involved in the school shooting carnage.

But for Democrat election strategists there are considerable risks on the horizon too. While polls indicate strong support for tougher gun control measures among party activists, they know it isn’t necessarily the case among grassroots Democrat voters in some states and districts they need to win to take full control of Congress.

For example, they are defending 10 Senate seats in states Donald Trump won against the odds in last year’s presidential election and there are key target seats they need to capture where taking a tough stand on gun control could potentially backfire.

Over the coming weeks Democrat lawmakers and their campaign advisers have to figure out how much prioritising a polarising debate on gun control will work out. The trigger to electoral triumph or a moral (but Pyrrhic) victory in which playing the gun control card too hard turned out to be a case of shooting yourself in the electoral foot?

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