Stay cool. Run out the clock. Scare some gun nuts while you can. But don’t worry: this moment will be over soon.
That’s the message the Republican Party, Donald Trump, and conservative leaders rapidly coalesced around after a series of mass shootings in recent weeks, including at one at a Texas elementary school.
Several strategy memos and private communications, prepared for a variety of conservative candidates and organizations, reviewed by Rolling Stone in the days following the Uvalde school massacre were clear: change the topic to literally anything else, and let this news cycle run its course.
“Ignore guns, talk inflation,” one such memo, written for a top-tier GOP Senate candidate, succinctly reads, citing polling data of voter concerns ahead of the critical 2022 midterm elections. Other documents predictably decried liberal desires for “gun-grabbing” and “gun confiscation,” and made whataboutism-type references to gun violence in Chicago.
On Friday May 27th, three days after a gunman’s rampage at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the Republican National Committee distributed a memo of talking points and messaging advice to its surrogates and media allies. The email began with some pro-forma thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families, then went on to “thank…the members of law enforcement who responded to the scene and killed the shooter.” (That’s despite the fact that 19 such cops inside the school waited and waited while students begged for help — and the gunman continued to fire.)
But the bulk of the memo, part of the series of RNC “Pundit Prep” that typically lists the party’s weekly political priorities, had a conspicuous omission. It did not include any actual talking points about the latest school massacre in the U.S. — a mass shooting that dominated American media and political conversation, only to be bookended by news of other mass murders carried out with firearms. The email did detail, however, “what you need to know” about “this week’s primary elections,” and listed the RNC’s recommended reading from Fox News, Breitbart, Newsmax, and the Washington Examiner, on such topics as President Joe Biden’s “failed” immigration record.
As for Trump, the former president doesn’t see it as much of a pressing issue, either — unless he’s paying public lip-service to the Trump-supporting gun lobby and its supporters. Late last week, Trump traveled to the NRA’s annual meeting and celebration in Texas, to deliver a speech reaffirming his commitment to the cause held so dear by the highly motivated voters who he once lauded as his “Second Amendment people.” But in the days since, gun rights and gun violence — or even the euphemism of “school safety” — do not seem to be top-of-mind for the undisputed leader of the GOP. According to one source who recently tried to speak to the ex-president about gun issues and the 2022 midterms, Trump barely exhibited any interest at all, instead preferring to riff on celebrity gossip and news. “He talked a lot more about Johnny Depp [and the Amber Heard defamation trial] than he did about guns and school safety and Second Amendment issues,” this person relayed to Rolling Stone earlier this week. “The sense I got was he said what he needed to say and it’s time to move on to other things,” the source added.
Predictably, Republican political strategists are thinking along similar lines. “My advice to any Republican candidate would be to not let the moment dictate any political action that may have unintended consequences that leads to widespread gun confiscation,” says Steven Cheung, a political operative advising GOP candidates in 2022 House and Senate races. “Defend the Second Amendment because that’s where the base is, but offer tangible solutions like hardening of schools and more funding for mental health.”
Cheung, a Trump White House and campaign veteran, was echoing a formula perfected by groups like the National Rifle Association, ever since the days of the Columbine shooting: doubling-down, changing the subject, refusing to give an inch on gun rights, and letting “the moment” just pass. It’s become standard operating procedure whenever national attention is inconveniently focused on killing sprees involving firearms.
Nowadays, the NRA is a weakened ringleader, having been hobbled by outside investigations and internal power struggles. According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Republican activists and movement leaders have noticed the NRA flexing far less muscle behind the scenes in recent weeks, and taking what one knowledgeable source described as a more “backseat” role since the Uvalde killings. “It’s nowhere near what it was like just ten years ago, when they were such a dominating presence everywhere and leading the charge on everything [following the Newtown massacre],” one source noted.
But with or without the NRA’s influence, every influential player in the GOP and pro-gun advocacy got on the same page, regardless. J.D. Vance, the Trump-endorsed Republican Senate nominee from Ohio, quickly denounced “large scale gun confiscation” after the Uvalde school shooting. Donald Trump Jr., the twice-impeached former president’s eldest son and a leading MAGA luminary, suggested the shooter could have murdered the 19 children and two teachers with “a bat, or a bomb, or some sort of improvised device, or a machete.” In response to the mass killing, Fox News aired segment after segment featuring panelists and hosts blaming anything but easily accessible guns — and everything from the lack of booby traps in schools to young students scared of being branded the “school snitch.”
And when it came to the RNC’s messaging apparatus, the national party mostly sidestepped the gun debate, staying laser-focused on issues such as inflation, gas prices, and the baby formula shortage. When the national GOP did publicly address guns following the Uvalde rampage, it was largely to accuse Democratic politicians of wanting to “CONFISCATE” Americans’ firearms.
President Biden tried to keep the issue of gun control in the headlines with a White House address. “For God’s sake, how much more carnage are we willing to accept? How many more innocent American lives must be taken before we say ‘enough?’” he asked on Thursday. And earlier in the week, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) alleged that bipartisan gun negotiations on Capitol Hill were “making rapid progress toward a common sense package that could garner support from both Republicans and Democrats.”
In the realm of reality, the Republican Party had a different vision for the future.
“My honest advice to the candidates I’m advising is to, for the most part, just wait this out,” one longtime well-connected Republican consultant said. “The media will start chasing something else soon, and [Republicans] should stick to talking about the issues that affect voters’ lives most … and I’m sorry to say, guns aren’t topping the list.”