Donald Trump’s raucous rally in Vermont on Thursday night served as counterprogramming to President Obama’s CNN-hosted town hall in more ways than one. “You know what a gun-free zone is to sickos? That’s bait,” the Republican hopeful told the crowd the same night the president engaged in a more nuanced prime-time discussion about guns in America. Trump continued: “I will get rid of gun-free zones on schools, and—you have to—and on military bases. My first day, it gets signed, OK? My first day. There’s no more gun-free zones.”
Trump’s been railing against gun-free zones on military bases for a while now—and generally espousing the NRA-approved belief about the benefits of “good guys with guns”—but his position on school zones appears to be new. I say appears because, as has been common practice for his campaign, Trump and his staff have declined to elaborate on what exactly the candidate is proposing. Does he want to repeal the federal law that created gun-free school zones? Or does he want to also make it illegal for states to pass their own version of the law if they so choose? As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent points out, if we take Trump’s words at face value—“no more gun-free zones”—it’s the latter. And that, Sargent notes, would be a significant development, forcing his GOP rivals to either follow suit or risk sounding soft on guns. (If they do echo the Donald, meanwhile, they could upset the states’ rights crowd that theoretically would be against the federal government telling states what they can and cannot do.)
Even if Trump was just speaking off the cuff, there’s a good chance the cheers he heard from the crowd will convince him to turn his ad-libbed aside into an actual policy proposal. We’ve seen this before: Trump’s prepared remarks for his campaign launch this past summer made no mention of forcing Mexico to pay for the wall, but after he went off script and added the line during his rambling speech, it quickly became a center piece of his campaign. More recently, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, he entertained a variety of extreme ideas—including creating a Muslim database—before ultimately settling on indefinitely banning Muslims who are not U.S. citizen from entering the country. All of Trump’s thinking out loud makes life difficult for his GOP rivals, who often have to react to Trump’s proposals before they’ve even been defined.
The irony in this case is that for all Trump’s tough talk on guns, he has a mixed record on the issue. In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, the real estate tycoon voiced support for banning some assault weapons and generally tried to stake out some space between conservatives and a liberal straw man. “Democrats want to confiscate all guns, which is a dumb idea because only the law-abiding citizens would turn in their guns and the bad guys would be the only ones left armed,” he wrote then. “The Republicans walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions.” Now that he’s running for the GOP nomination, though, Trump’s not just walking that line, he’s trying to lead the parade.