INDIANAPOLIS — The National Rifle Association has been rocked by scandal and riddled with lawsuits. Its annual conferences are regularly held in the context of mass shootings, because gun violence has become so common. His brand has been tarnished and his power diminished, both for allies and foes.

Still, serious contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination wouldn’t miss a chance to address this weekend’s NRA members’ gathering for the world, even if it means participating remotely. Former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence are scheduled to appear in person here Friday, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will travel to New Hampshire, the site of the nation’s first primary, will send a video message.

“Despite what has happened to the organization in recent years, it is still probably the largest gathering of Second Amendment voters,” said Devin O’Malley, a spokesman for Pence.

In that way, the NRA remains an important conduit between candidates and conservative voters who not only support the right to bear arms, but see it as a representative of individual freedom from government regulation. At the same time, external spending by NRA affiliates, the main vehicle for influencing elections, fell from more than $54 million in the 2016 presidential cycle to less than $30 million in the 2020 cycle, according to the OpenSecrets surveillance group.

“The issue is as powerful as ever, but I don’t think the group is as powerful,” said Brian Darling, a former attorney for libertarian-minded Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. «The right to bear arms is a central freedom issue for many Republican primary voters… If you have a candidate saying the wrong things, then that raises a red flag on a number of other issues.»

Advocates of tightening gun restrictions say Republican presidential candidates are taking a gamble in the general election by lining up to align with the NRA.

«The Republican genuflection at the NRA convention puts the GOP in a political vicious circle with the voters they need to win national elections,» said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat. for Arizona. that she survived a mass shooting in Arizona in 2011.

“Voters want strong gun laws that protect children and prevent violent crime,” Ambler said. “The NRA offers its Republican allies a toxic brand that makes Donald Trump seem reasonable by comparison: more extremism, more violence, more venality and corruption.”

Everyone is going to flock to the NRA meeting and pledge their allegiance. There will be thoughts and prayers for the dead and dying, but nothing will change.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele

Since 2015, most Americans have been in favor of stricter regulations on the purchase of firearms. according to the Gallup polling organization. But the issue of guns is also one that most voters give a low priority to.

The familiar post-mass shooting cycle is one in which reform advocates call for tighter restrictions on the sale of specific weapons, such as the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle; accessories; and ammunition, while gun rights activists and like-minded elected officials point to mental illness as the proximate cause of the violence.

Last year, President Joe Biden signed the first major gun restriction law in decades, which focused on mental health intervention and expanding background checks for buyers under the age of 21.

But against the backdrop of inaction by Congress and the White House on tighter limitations, the Supreme Court ruled last year that people have a constitutional right to bear arms in public. At the state level, governors and conservative legislatures have expanded gun rights.

DeSantis, for example, legislation signed earlier this month that allows people to carry guns in Florida without a permit or training.

Trump upset some gun owners by backing a ban on fire accelerators, devices that allow shooters to fire semi-automatic weapons more quickly, and showing some interest in other gun restrictions. But he remains a favorite of many gun owners, and a campaign official for him said talking to the NRA makes sense during a presidential campaign.

“They remain the preeminent gun rights group in the United States and still wield a lot of influence and power,” the official said.

Republican strategists say the NRA still acts as a validator for Republican candidates, even if they have their own means of demonstrating their support for the right to bear arms. And it’s that connection to gun rights activists that matters most, according to the group.

«Their attendance speaks to the strength of the Second Amendment but, above all, it is a tribute to the true power of the NRA – our valued members,» said Andrew Arulanandam, NRA spokesman.

The array of Republican contenders and potential candidates scheduled to speak at the conference include New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who is viewed by many in his party as a moderate on other issues. But the right to bear arms is a big concern for many voters in the Live Free or Die state.

“New Hampshire is one of the safest states in the country with some of the best gun laws and home to incredible companies, including Sig Sauer,” Sununu said in a statement to NBC News. «I look forward to sharing our success in New Hampshire and how it can be replicated across the country with NRA members this weekend.»

Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he remembers attending a candidate forum where GOP hopefuls were asked about their support for the right to bear arms. The discussion quickly turned performative, he said, with each candidate talking about what guns they owned and how much they liked to shoot.

«It was almost like a measuring contest,» he said in an interview.

Since then, he said, the GOP has become further hardened by a base that is recalcitrant in the face of calls for greater gun restrictions amid mass shootings.

«The rhetoric has gotten tougher, the compassion for those who are affected by gun violence is gone, the concern with actually addressing a problem that is 75% of the American people’s problem is gone. The idea of that even thinking about doing something is gone,» he said. «So the party finds itself in a more difficult position relative to the American people.»

Steele lamented what he called an «unholy alliance» between activists, the NRA and gun manufacturers, saying the Republican Party is in a position to change the national approach to guns, but its base is holding firm.

«Everyone is going to flock to the NRA meeting and pledge their allegiance,» he said. «There will be thoughts and prayers for the dead and dying, but nothing will change.»