Former Vice President Mike Pence, a possible White House contender, looked to move to the right of his former boss and 2024 Republican front-runner Donald Trump at the annual NRA conference on Friday, calling for armed officers at all schools and speedier executions of shooters.
But in a sign of the tough battle Pence faces to win over Trump fans and secure the Republican presidential nomination, boos rang out in the vast Indianapolis conference room of the National Rifle Association, the country’s leading gun-rights advocacy group, as he walked onto the stage to deliver his speech.
“I love you too,” Pence joked, before touting his gun rights credentials and vowing he would never let “liberal meddlers” win, hoping to draw a contrast with Trump, who is accused by some firearms aficionados of failing to care deeply about gun rights.
“I believe the time has come to institute a federal death penalty statute, with accelerated appeal, to ensure that those who engage in mass shootings face execution in months, not years,” Pence, a former governor of Indiana, told the crowd of hundreds, many of whom were wearing Trump-themed T-shirts and red baseball hats.
Pence, who has criticized Trump for the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, received scattered applause during his speech and then more boos as he concluded.
Trump, whom the NRA enthusiastically backed in 2016 before he was even officially declared the Republican presidential candidate, will address the gathering later on Friday, highlighting the gun lobby’s continued political potency even as the U.S. reels from the latest spate of mass shootings.
The conference is taking place at a key moment in the Republican presidential campaign.
A number of hopefuls, including Trump’s closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, are deliberating on whether to jump in to the 2024 race to challenge the former president for the nomination. DeSantis and other White House hopefuls, U.S. Senator Tim Scott and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, will address the NRA by video message.
The parade of top-tier politicians shows that the NRA event remains a rite of passage for Republican hopefuls, despite the slew of corruption accusations and legal problems faced by the group, as well as media reports of dwindling membership.
“The NRA is still the granddaddy of the guns lobby. The NRA-endorsed candidate in a Republican primary is very important,” said Richard Feldman, a member and former NRA lobbyist.
Feldman said he expected the NRA to eventually endorse Trump because its most vocal membership base – which draws heavily from a white, rural and male population subset – remains supportive of him.
While in office Trump was broadly supportive of gun rights, but angered some activists in 2018 by banning the high-power gun attachments used in a 2017 Las Vegas shooting in which dozens of people were killed.
Trump’s campaign website says he will “always defend your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” but does not provide detailed policy proposals.
Even if the NRA does endorse Trump, the group, faced with a major lawsuit in New York and falling revenue, according to some reports, is unlikely to provide the same financial support as in past elections.
Spending has already decreased: The NRA spent some $54.4 million during the 2016 election, including $31.2 million for Trump’s campaign, but that fell to $29.1 million in the 2020 cycle, the bulk of it for Trump’s campaign, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks U.S. advocacy dollars.
The gun rights lobby has also come under pressure from the at least 149 mass shootings around the country since the start of the year.
“Republican primary hopefuls are descending on Indianapolis to pander to the NRA’s extreme leaders for support that will be poison in a general election,” said Shannon Watts, founder of gun control group Moms Demand Action.
The Biden administration, which has pushed gun regulations, on Friday said the NRA should be addressing the “soaring number of children” being killed with guns, and was instead resisting “commonsense” measures that would save lives.
The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.
DeSantis, who is expected to declare his run in coming months, will likely extol a recent Florida law allowing residents to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.
He will likely be hoping to strengthen his gun bona fides after the Washington Post in February reported that he wanted weapons banned from his victory celebration in Tampa, Florida, last year, irking gun rights supporters.