WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump became the first sitting president to address a National Rifle Association convention in more than 30 years when he speaks Friday at the group’s annual meeting.
The president’s trip to Atlanta also served as his first foray into a congressional race since taking office. Trump is expected to attend a private fundraiser for Republican congressional candidate Karen Handel, a local election that has become a national referendum on his presidency.
Trump has been a champion of gun rights and supportive of NRA efforts to loosen restrictions on gun ownership. During the campaign, he promised to do away with President Barack Obama’s efforts to strengthen background checks and to eliminate gun-free zones at schools and military bases.
The last president to address an NRA convention was Ronald Reagan, who spoke to the 1983 gathering, according to the powerful gun rights lobby. Trump’s appearance in Atlanta is expected to spark significant protests.
The NRA is pushing for federal legislation to make any state’s concealed-carry permits valid nationwide. Opponents say the move would effectively turn the weakest gun standards in the nation into the law of the land. The GOP-led Congress already passed a resolution to block a rule that would have kept guns out of the hands of certain people with mental disorders, and Trump quickly signed it.
Trump, who also attended last year’s NRA convention as a candidate, boasts of owning a pair of guns and says his two adult sons are avid hunters. He stirred controversy during the campaign when he suggested that “Second Amendment people” could stop his opponent Hillary Clinton, which some interpreted to be a call for violence against the Democratic nominee. Trump disputed that charge.
Kevin Michalowski, executive editor of the Concealed Carry magazine published by the United States Concealed Carry Association, said seeing that a president will be addressing the annual meeting “gives the gun industry a feeling of he’s on our side.”
The political landscape has changed dramatically with a president now in the White House friendly to the gun industry and gun rights. But Michalowski said it’s premature to get complacent with gun sales having tapered off since the election and “there’s always a group out there that opposes the Second Amendment and what it stands for.”
After addressing NRA members, Trump attened a private fundraiser for Republican congressional candidate Karen Handel. It’s the president’s first such endeavor for a congressional hopeful since taking office and confirmation that the GOP sees Georgia’s 6th Congressional District runoff as a barometer of the 2018 midterm elections.
The affluent, well-educated district has been in Republican hands since 1979 — when the future House Speaker Newt Gingrich took office — and it still covers the usually conservative northern suburbs of Atlanta. But an upstart Democrat, 30-year-old Jon Ossoff, used an anti-Trump wave to raise more than $8 million ahead of an April 18 multiparty primary and nearly won the seat outright, finishing almost 30 points ahead of Handel, the top Republican vote-getter.
Handel largely avoided mentioning Trump during the primary campaign, a nod to his struggles in November, when he barely won a district that usually gives GOP presidential nominees more than 60 percent of the vote.
But Handel has openly embraced the president in the opening days of the runoff campaign. Trump called to congratulate her on qualifying for the runoff and praised her via his personal Twitter account. Both major parties and their aligned organizations have flooded the district with volunteers, paid staffers and promises of millions in additional television advertising ahead of the June 20 second round.
The winner will succeed Republican Tom Price, who resigned to joint Trump’s Cabinet as health secretary.