President Donald Trump, speaking Friday at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Atlanta, praised the gun rights group for its strong support for him in last year’s election. “You came through for me,” he said, “and I am going to come through for you.” HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Trump in Atlanta: I will ‘never ever’ weaken gun rights

President Donald Trump pledged Friday that an “eight-year assault” on gun rights was over, invoking many of his tried-and-true favorites from the campaign trail to a friendly crowd in Atlanta at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting.

As thousands of supporters roared their approval, Trump pledged to put “America first” and guaranteed a wall would be built on the U.S. border with Mexico. And he drew the loudest applause when he showered the NRA with praise for supporting him in last year’s race.

“You came through for me,” he said, “and I am going to come through for you.”

Outside the Georgia World Congress Center, scores of protesters welcomed the president with demonstrations across town targeting the Republican’s embrace of the gun rights group. Many were eager to remind him of the disparaging remarks he made in January about Atlanta.

Inside the cavernous convention hall, Trump tried to rev up conservatives who formed the backbone of his November victory. He recalled how pundits and the media predicted he would be trounced at the polls. And he declared that the threat to “Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”

“No longer will federal agencies be coming after law-abiding gun owners,” he said. “No longer will the government be trying to undermine your rights and freedoms as Americans.”

Support for Handel, advice to Georgia GOP

It was Trump’s first trip to Georgia since his presidential victory, and it came on the eve of his 100th day in office. He was welcomed as a hero, with many gun rights supporters at the convention praising his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He treated the speech as a political rally, railing against journalists and critics who said “there was no path to 270” — the number of Electoral College votes a candidate needs to secure the presidency.

And he vouched for Karen Handel, the Republican candidate in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, saying she waged an “incredible fight” to land a spot in the June 20 runoff against Democrat Jon Ossoff. Handel has cozied up to Trump since landing the No. 2 spot in the race, and the two appeared together at a fundraiser shortly after his NRA event.

“She’s totally for the NRA and she’s totally for the Second Amendment. So get out and vote,” Trump said. “You know, she’s running against someone who is going to raise your taxes to the sky and destroy your health care.”

Calling Trump “misinformed on the issues,” Ossoff said, “I’m focused on bringing fresh leadership, accountability and bipartisan problem solving to Washington.”

Trump added a personal plea for Georgia Republicans to avoid another overcrowded election. There were 18 candidates running in the 6th District, which stretches from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, and 11 of them were Republicans.

“By the way, in primaries, let’s not have 11 Republicans run for the same position,” he said. “It’s too nerve-shattering.”

A campaign forecast for 2020

The president’s visit was his first to Atlanta since he maligned Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, which stretches through the heart of the city, as a “crime infested” area that is in “horrible shape.”

He made no mention of that Jan. 14 Twitter barrage, which targeted Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis after he said he was boycotting Trump’s inauguration because he would not be a “legitimate” president.

Instead, Trump focused on crowd-pleasing stump-speech material. He said he’d have no problem in 2020 against what he predicted would be a large field, even suggesting Democrats could nominate “Pocahontas” — a reference to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“She is not big for the NRA — that I can tell you,” he said.

And he made no specific promises about any major effort to roll back current gun laws, instead speaking in broader tones about rolling back the Obama administration’s restrictions on firearm sales.

“We will work with you by your side,” he said.

The ‘most proudly pro-gun’ president

As Trump prepared to speak, hundreds of protesters gathered in several spots in Atlanta to rally against the president. At Woodruff Park, 93 people staged a “die-in” to represent what organizers said was the daily U.S. death toll for gun violence.

Among the demonstrators was Martha Anderson of Macon, who held a sign reading: “Donald Trump can kiss my rump.”

“Truly, when Donald Trump was running I thought it was a joke,” she said, “and now the joke’s on us.”

At the Georgia World Congress Center, where the NRA’s gathering is being held, organizers expected more than 80,000 people to pack the four-day event that runs through Sunday.

Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue spoke on Trump’s behalf, giving him “absolutely an A-plus” in his opening days in the White House, and several NRA leaders praised the president as they pressed for federal legislation to make any state’s concealed-carry permits valid anywhere in the U.S.

NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre slammed the media as “public relations flacks” who were biased against Trump. And Chris Cox, the group’s top lobbyist, said the NRA helped elect the “most proudly pro-gun” president in the nation’s history.

That kind of endorsement would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago. Trump once advocated for stricter gun limits but emerged last year as a stalwart supporter of gun rights. The NRA rewarded him with an endorsement months before he locked up the GOP presidential nomination — and put about $30 million behind his campaign.

On Friday, Trump returned the favor for what amounted to a “thank you” to the gun rights juggernaut.

“I will never, ever infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” Trump said. “Never, ever.”

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Staff writer Meris Lutz contributed to this article.

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