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Dozens gather at the Michigan Capitol to rally in support of their right to bear arms as well as to decry efforts undertaken by the state to rein in the coronavirus pandemic (Sept. 17)

AP Domestic

At virtually every stop on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump has sought to strike an emotional chord in audiences with a familiar warning.

“Sleepy Joe is gonna take your guns away,” Trump declared at a rally in Minnesota on Friday night, disparaging his political rival and Democratic efforts to tighten firearm controls. 

The death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has injected fresh urgency into Trump’s rhetoric and one of America’s most divisive struggles. 

Sunday, two days after the passing of the 87-year-old jurist, the president turned up the heat, appealing to gun owners in the final stretch of the campaign: “SAVE YOUR SECOND AMENDMENT, VOTE TRUMP,” he tweeted.

Nowhere does the tension resonate more than at the counter of gun dealers and trade shows.

The discordant political climate, a roiling racial justice movement and fear driven by the relentless COVID-19 pandemic pushed gun sales to record levels. The FBI, responsible for conducting background checks on prospective buyers, acknowledges that surging sales pushed its system to the limit. 

Trump has pitched at least part of his reelection bid as a promise to assemble a Supreme Court that would serve as a backstop for a constellation of conservative stands, including gun rights.

Gun control advocates have also amplified their messages in the wake of Ginsburg’s death. “Make no mistake,” said Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign, “gun safety is on the ballot in November.”

Noting Ginsburg’s long career as a legal “trailblazer,” Brown said the “loss is overshadowed by the reality that her seat, and potentially the fate of sensible gun laws in America, now rests in the hands of (Republican) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump. … Those laws and the hard-earned progress that activists and concerned Americans have won for generations are now in peril.”

Sharp divides on guns

Guns were on the Supreme Court’s docket last term, the first major Second Amendment case in nearly a decade, when the court weighed a challenge to New York City’s ban on transporting legally owned guns outside city limits.

More: Supreme Court sidesteps major Second Amendment case, a setback for NRA

Gun rights groups argued that the prohibition was too restrictive, as it effectively barred gun owners from taking firearms to shooting ranges or to vacation homes beyond city limits.

In April, the court voided the case by ruling that New York’s repeal of the restriction rendered the case closed.

The challenge underscored the sharp political differences that are on display as Republicans and Democrats clash over when and how Ginsburg’s seat should be filled.

More: Senate GOP writes letter to the Supreme Court, pledging not to allow Dems to ‘pack the Court’

Culture wars: The gun debate isn’t about what you think

The prospect of the court expanding gun rights in the New York case set off a partisan dispute in the Senate when five Democrats filed a brief urging the court to dismiss the case or voters might demand that it be “restructured.”

That was interpreted by many as a threat to pack the court with additional justices if Democrats win the White House and Senate.

Fifty-three Republicans followed with a letter to the court complaining that Democrats “openly threatened this court with political retribution.”

“The implication is as plain as day: ‘Dismiss this case, or we’ll pack the court,’” they wrote.

In a statement after Ginsburg’s death, Everytown for Gun Safety noted the New York case, saying the justice “dismantled the gun lobby’s argument and championed common sense, as she did so many times before.”

The National Rifle Association, which supported the case, declined comment Monday.

Trump once said GOP was ‘petrified’ of NRA

Two weeks after the mass shooting in 2018 that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Trump sounded little like the candidate  embraced by the gun lobby.

The president, in a meeting to discuss school safety measures, startled lawmakers – particularly pro-gun Republicans – when he expressed support for taking firearms away from people who might commit violence before going through legal due process in the courts.

“I like taking guns away early,” Trump said. “Take the guns first, go through due process second.” Trump chided fellow Republicans, saying they were “petrified” of the NRA.

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Joshua Powell, NRA former second-in-command to Wayne LaPierre says his boss used mass shootings to sell guns, and that’s just “the tip of the iceberg.”

USA TODAY

After a meeting with the NRA, Trump backed away from taking aggressive action. He again retreated from brief consideration of expanded background checks after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio in 2019, referring to the “slippery slope” that might result in an erosion of gun rights.

There is no disputing where Trump stands in full campaign mode.

“I protected your Second Amendment,” Trump told an audience last month in Arlington, Virginia. “Did you think that was easy for the last four years. … But we held totally strong, and it’s always going to be with us. But if they (Democrats) get in, they will absolutely – either obliterate it to a point of no return or actually terminate it. And I have no doubt about it.”

The Biden campaign has offered no such proposal, but the former vice president does advocate for restrictions, such as an expansion of background checks – an idea that Trump briefly weighed last year. Biden proposes a ban on the manufacture and sale of weapons with high-capacity ammunition magazines. 

When Biden was a Delaware senator, he pushed to establish a 10-year ban on certain weapons that expired in 2004. He said that if he is elected president, he would create a buyback program for weapons in circulation.

Charlie Kelly, senior political adviser for Everytown, called the pairing of Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former state attorney general, the “strongest gun safety ticket” that offers a stark difference for voters.

“Even in the age of COVID, the issue has only increased,” Kelly said, referring to surges in gun violence in some cities.

The sharp differences, analysts said, are likely to be amplified in the campaign’s homestretch, as Trump moves to fill Ginsburg’s seat.

During weekend vigils after Ginsburg’s death, a group of gun rights advocates was in the midst of its annual policy conference.

Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, warned delegates that Biden would use the courts and other arms of the federal government to shrink access to guns, suggesting that the Democratic nominee would even move to close gun ranges.

“Between now and the November election, there are no rest stops along the way,” Gottlieb told the group.

Contributing: Richard Wolf and David Jackson

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