For the first time as president, Donald Trump on Thursday split with the National Rifle Association and tweeted that he supports raising the minimum age on purchasing some weapons to 21.
An NRA spokeswoman said on Wednesday that such proposals would deprive young adults of “their constitutional right to self-protection.” But in the wake of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last week that left 17 people dead, some Republicans including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — who has an A+ rating from the gun-rights group — have expressed support for upping the purchase age. Authorities said the 19-year-old Parkland shooter bought the AR-15 he used in the massacre legally when he was 18.
It’s unclear how much Trump’s tweet will mean for gun policy given that the president has tweeted support for many proposals over the past year with little follow-through — and considering his incredibly warm relationship with the gun lobby over the past two years.
“To the NRA, I can proudly say I will never, ever let you down,” Trump told the group last spring. He’s been a man of his word. An hour after his Thursday tweet embracing raising the minimum age of purchase, Trump tweeted out a message of support for the gun-rights group.
Trump did catch some Republicans and Democrats by surprise earlier this week by publicly embracing two gun control reforms: beefing up background checks and banning bump stocks. Yet those reforms are, not coincidentally, minor ones that the NRA has already publicly supported for months. And even with widespread support on both sides of the aisle, those small reforms haven’t gone anywhere.
On Tuesday, Trump announced that he’d told Attorney General Jeff Sessions to consider banning bump stocks, an add-on that allows a semi-automatic weapon to fire like an automatic one. The tool has come under intense scrutiny since a gunman used one to kill 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas in October.
"Just a few moments ago, I signed a memo directing the attorney general to propose regulations that ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns," Trump said Tuesday at the White House. "I expect these regulations to be finalized, Jeff, very soon.”
Trump’s stance mirrors that of the NRA, but comes months later. Just days after the Vegas shooting, the organization’s leadership issued a statement that they believed “devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
And Sessions may not be able to do anything about bump stocks without congressional action. During the Obama administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms twice ruled that bump stock devices were legal under current law, and the administration couldn’t unilaterally prohibit them. While Republicans in Congress have nominally supported the idea of banning bump stocks, they’ve shown little willingness to a pass any legislation.
That might be why some pro-gun control Democrats are underwhelmed with Trump’s recent efforts. “If this is all the White House is willing to do to address gun violence, it’s wholly insufficient,” Sen. Chris Murphy told The New York Times on Tuesday. “Let’s not pretend this is some huge concession on his part,” he said.
Later on Tuesday, Trump followed up his bump stock memorandum with another proposal delivered on his favorite platform. “We must now focus on strengthening Background Checks!” he tweeted. (The 19-year-old who opened fire on the Florida school passed the background check required to purchase his AR-15 rifle, despite his multiple contacts with school and law enforcement officials.)
The NRA has publicly supported legislation to strengthen the enforcement of background checks since a mass shooting at a Texas church last November that killed 26 people.
The shooter in that case, a former service member, would not have been able to buy a gun legally had the Air Force properly reported an earlier domestic violence charge against him to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The NRA came out in support of legislation from Murphy and Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas that would improve enforcement of the current background check system by imposing penalties on agencies that fail to properly report to the database and provide incentives to state governments to improve their reporting.
“The NRA will continue to support efforts to make the background check system instant, accurate, and fair, while protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners," the organization’s statement read.
The Republican-led House later attached a background-checks bill to the NRA’s top legislative priority of concealed carry reciprocity, which would force states with strict gun laws to honor concealed carry permits from other states with less stringent laws. The combined bill passed the House in December but has since gone unaddressed in the Senate as Democrats have demanded the two pieces of legislation be separated.
This story has been updated to reflect President Trump's Feb. 22 tweets in support of certain gun control measures.