Trump seeks conservative revival at NRA

Local News

LOUISVILLE, KY – MAY 20: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association’s NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the NRA Convention at the Kentucky Exposition Center on May 20, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. The NRA endorsed Trump at the convention. The convention runs May 22. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On the eve of his 100th day in office, President Donald Trump hopes a speech to the National Rifle Association can help renew his standing among a conservative base wary after watching the President reverse course on a series of campaign promises.

His address Friday amounts to a return for Trump to the type of staunchly conservative setting that he used as a candidate to appeal to Republican voters. It’s the first time a sitting US president has spoken at an annual meeting of the NRA since Ronald Reagan addressed the group in 1983.

Trump is expected to reaffirm his campaign pledges to expand gun ownership rights and roll back some of the restrictions instituted under his Democratic predecessor. But he’s not planning to make any new policy pronouncements to the gathering, which is taking place at a downtown convention center here.

Trump is under pressure to demonstrate wins on the set of conservative principles he laid out as a candidate. In the past month, he’s made about-faces on issues like China, trade and NATO, leading to some conservative angst the reversals reflect a drift away from the underpinnings of his campaign.

At Autrey’s Armory, an indoor shooting range 40-minutes south of downtown Atlanta, patrons said they regarded Trump favorably as he nears 100 days in office. But they worried his record on gun rights would be hampered by Congress.

“I think it’s going to be a mixed bag,” said Mike Holtzclaw, a municipal public safety official in Atlanta who owns guns for hobby and self-protection. “I think that some gun owners are going to feel that he’s done the best that he can, and I really think he’s doing the best that he can. But I think some will be disappointed.”

“That’s going to be true not just of gun ownership,” he said. “That’s going to be true of several of the things that he’s trying to put forward.”

Since taking office, Trump has barely mentioned gun ownership rights outside a few scattered mentions during the campaign rallies he’s already holding for his reelection bid. He has taken steps to roll back certain Obama-era restrictions on gun use and sales, but has not yet made a concerted effort to relax current gun laws.

Advocates say they are looking for Trump to help advance legislation making concealed-carry permits valid across state lines, as well as a measure that would loosen requirements for buying gun silencers.

In February, Trump signed a measure that reversed a rule barring gun sales to certain mentally ill people, which was written as a response to the 2012 elementary school shooting in Connecticut. His administration also rolled back a regulation banning lead ammunition on wildlife refuges that was implemented on the last full day of the Obama presidency. But Trump himself didn’t announce the change, leaving the task instead to his Interior secretary.

Gun rights groups like the NRA have praised Trump for his selection of Jeff Sessions as attorney general and Ryan Zinke as interior secretary.

But Trump’s chief accomplishment, in their view, was his successful nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, which returned a conservative majority to the panel and opened the door for legal challenges to some restrictive gun laws in states around the country. The NRA has already launched legal actions against an assault weapons ban in California in the hopes it will be eventually overturned by the high court.

As a candidate, Trump’s pledge to appoint conservative judges earned him early backing from the NRA, which threw its support behind the Republican in May of last year after he spoke at their meetings in Louisville.

In his speech then, Trump characterized his gun stance as more in opposition to his political rival than as a proactive pledge to reverse current law.

“Crooked Hillary Clinton is the most anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment candidate ever to run for office,” Trump said then. “The only way to save our Second Amendment is to vote for a person that you all know named Donald Trump.”

Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of the guns rights organization sometimes appeared discordant: the President was once a proponent for stricter gun control laws, and hails from a city with some of the toughest restrictions on firearms in the country.

Trump’s two sons, both avid hunters, worked to connect their father to gun rights advocates and act as credible voices for him on the subject, but he found himself overstepping occasionally in his rhetoric.

When Trump suggested that a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando could have been prevented if the victims were armed, the NRA offered a rare rebuke, saying his remark “defies common sense.” Trump later offered clarification.

However, when Trump suggested that “Second Amendment people” take matters into their own hands should Clinton be elected, the NRA backed Trump, saying he was right that Clinton was a threat to their constitutional right to bear arms.

As traditional Republican groups either abandoned Trump on the campaign trail last year, or remained quiet in their support of the brash and controversial candidate, the NRA loudly proclaimed its support and poured millions of dollars into pro-Trump advertising.

The gun organization spent heavily in states where its membership overlapped with the white working-class voters Trump was targeting, including in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Their spending far outpaced previous election cycles, when the Republican candidates voiced more moderate stances on gun control.

On Thursday, the NRA said it was money well spent.

“We are very pleased,” said Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman. “He ran as one of the most unabashed pro-second amendment candidates in my lifetime, and he really has kept his promises and done a lot for people who care about the Second Amendment and the Constitution in his first 100 days.”

The US Secret Service said Thursday attendees at Trump’s speech will have to leave their firearms outside.

Federal law provides the Secret Service the authority to prevent guns from entering sites visited by protectees, even in states that allow open carry of firearms. Law enforcement officials are allowed to bring guns into the secure areas.

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