Former President Donald Trump won the Iowa caucus on Monday. And he did it without having to defend his record on gun policy because none of his opponents have made it an issue in the race.
His remaining opponents, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have done little to try and draw a contrast with Trump on guns. They’ve spent much time going after each other rather than the frontrunner. But, even in criticizing each other, they’ve avoided the topic of firearms.
That’s perhaps a symptom of a larger issue with the campaigns Trump’s opponents have run. Their often tacit or explicit endorsement of the idea that Trump won the last election and all of his legal problems are illegitimate witch hunts has severely undermined the viability of their own candidacies. After all, if Trump really won the last election and he hasn’t committed any crimes, why shouldn’t Republican primary voters just pick him again?
To be fair, DeSantis and Haley have been more willing to criticize his policy record on some fronts, such as his handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. Yet that willingness often hasn’t extended to how Trump has handled gun policy.
That’s very odd given, as we’ve noted before, DeSantis appeared to be setting himself up to run to Trump’s right on the issue. In 2022, he signed new rules banning banks from dropping Florida gun companies and eliminated permitting requirements for concealed carry. That gave him a favorable record to contrast against Trump.
After all, Trump’s record on gun policy is more mixed than most Republican voters probably realize at this point.
He certainly has a number of pro-gun accomplishments and has been vocally pro-gun at points. He signed a repeal of Obama-era regulations, barring some Social Security recipients with mental health issues from buying guns. He added gun companies to the list of essential businesses during the pandemic. And, of course, he appointed three of the six Supreme Court justices who ruled the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to carry a gun in 2022’s New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen.
He’s also repeatedly promised to defend the Second Amendment in public speeches. Those speeches include the keynotes at every NRA Annual Meeting since 2017–when he became the first sitting President since Ronald Reagan to address the gun-rights group.
However, he has a number of vulnerabilities as well. Before he ran for office, he wrote a book called “The America We Deserve” that featured support for an “assault weapons” ban. In the wake of the El Paso shooting, he reportedly had to be talked out of supporting a ban on AR-15s and other firearms. Similarly, in the wake of the 2017 Parkland shooting, he held a roundtable discussion with a bipartisan group of Senators where he said, “…take the guns first, go through due process second” when discussing the potential to pass a so-called red flag law.
During that meeting, Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence said such measures can “give families and give local law enforcement additional tools if an individual is reported to be a potential danger to themselves or others.”
“Allow due process so no one’s rights are trampled,” Pence said. “The ability to go to court, obtain an order, and then collect not only the firearms but any weapons in the possession of that individual…”
“Or, Mike, take the firearms first and then go to court,” Trump interrupted. “Because, a lot of times, by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due process procedures—I like taking the guns early. Like in this crazy man’s case, that just took place in Florida, he had a lot of firearms, they saw everything—to go to court would have taken a long time, so you could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.”
His support for working with Democrats to enact new gun restrictions didn’t survive the announcement of his first impeachment. However, Trump’s first term did see a significant new gun regulation. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, he used ATF rulemaking to unilaterally impose a ban and confiscation scheme on bump stocks. That policy has since been found unconstitutional in federal court and has been copied repeatedly by President Joe Biden to institute bans on unfinished gun parts and pistol braces.
At the beginning of the campaign, Trump doubled down on his support for the ban.
“As you know, the bump stocks are actually a very unimportant thing,” Trump said during a CNN town hall in May 2023. “NRA I went with them, and they said, ‘it doesn’t mean anything, or actually all they do is teach you how to shoot very inaccurately.’ So, we did that.”
The DeSantis camp has taken occasional shots at Trump’s gun record. When asked directly about Trump’s remarks a few days later by conservative radio host Dana Loesch, DeSantis criticized the bump stock ban.
“That’s unconstitutional,” DeSantis said. “It violates the Second Amendment, but I think, even more important, it violates the Fifth Amendment because they can’t take anything from you without due process. It’s not just firearms. And, so, the idea that you’re seizing people’s property and then promising due process later; that is wrong. That’s not something I would support.”
The Super Pac backing him also produced an ad hitting Trump on many of the issues mentioned above.
“Trump promised NRA members he’d have their back,” the ad begins. “When Second Amendment rights came under attack, Trump abandoned us and stood with liberal Democrats.”
But that’s about the extent of criticism levied at Trump over guns. Even when prompted about the issue in the first primary debate, nobody even mentioned Trump.
Trump has also increasingly engaged in the kind of rhetoric that gun-rights activists have traditionally found concerning. He’s promised to “root out” his political opponents who live like “vermin” and accused illegal immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country.” He’s continued to praise the strength of dictators like Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping while rebuffing an attempt by Sean Hannity to get him to say he won’t be a dictator himself.
“We love this guy,” Trump said of Hannity during a town hall. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said: ‘No, no, no, other than day one. We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.'”
That sort of rhetoric is part of what led to a new endorsement for Nikki Haley in the lead-up to the New Hampshire primary, which could well be the last chance for a Trump challenger to change the trajectory of the race. A gun-rights group, albeit a small one, has waded into the Republican primary in favor of Haley and against Trump. This week, the Independent Firearm Owners Association (IFOA) came out in favor of the former governor.
“Trump has stated he intends to be an absolute dictator on day one of his administration. Just one day, one is one too many!” Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist and president of the group, said. “His unprincipled ‘Art of the Deal’ mentality and his oft-demonstrated lust for unrestrained personal power means that no Trump commitment to any position can be trusted. In simple terms, we have no confidence in Trump’s pledge to uphold and protect the gun rights of law-abiding citizens.”
But Haley hasn’t even touted that endorsement. Her campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on it. So, it’s not entirely clear she wants to take on Trump in this way regardless of what IFOA does.
The window is probably closing for Trump’s Republican opponents to focus their fire on his vulnerabilities in this area. If he wins the New Hampshire primary, the path to beating him becomes even less clear than it already is. But there’s little sign either DeSantis or Haley plans to change course now.