ATLANTA — For nearly a decade, gun owners felt like they were living on pins and needles, worried about gun rights being taken away and feeling as though their way of life was scorned and under attack.
All those fears disappeared the moment Donald Trump was elected president and, this weekend, National Rifle Association members gathering for the gun lobby’s annual meeting are celebrating and rejoicing.
A year ago, Trump was addressing the NRA as a candidate. Friday offered a homecoming of sorts as President Trump thanked its members for their support. They responded with cheers as he rattled off the names of several of his appointees — from newly installed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch to Attorney General Jeff Sessions — and boos for his usual foes: Hillary Clinton and the media.
The first sitting president to address the NRA since 1983, Trump made it clear in a stump-style speech that he wasn’t wavering in his support for gun rights: “The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”
Mike Van Durme, a retired environmental police officer in New York and co-author of a book on hunter safety, said it’s been a relief to have a president in the White House who is a gun owner and supportive of gun rights.
“It was eight years of being frustrated and sad that the guy who is supposed to represent us embarrassed me,” Van Durme said, describing Barack Obama as disrespectful of members of law enforcement and the military and too deferential to foreign leaders. “The guy we just saw here? Like the song says, ‘He’s proud to be an American.'”
During the campaign, the NRA poured more than $30 million into Trump’s effort. Trump himself has said he has a concealed-carry permit and owns guns and son Donald Trump Jr. is a well-known hunter and key supporter of efforts to ease restrictions on the sales of suppressors. During the campaign, Trump promised to do away with Obama’s efforts to strengthen background checks and to eliminate gun-free zones at schools and military bases.
Trump’s address was reminiscent of his election rallies. He told NRA members he would not back away from defending the right to bear arms.
“You have a true friend and champion in the White House,” he said.
Leading up to his taking the stage, the NRA played a video with snippets of various celebrities and political pundits poo-pooing the chances of Trump being elected president interspersed with Election Night newscasts as state after state came in for Trump. The underdog emerging victorious proved popular to those in the crowd who view Trump as their champion — most especially when it comes to gun rights.
Still, his appearance in Atlanta sparked protests from people advocating for stricter gun control measures.
Lorraine Bascombe, who works in the health care industry and lives in suburban Atlanta, said she expected any Republican president to favor fewer regulations on gun purchases. But she worries Trump won’t listen to people who want “sensible, safe” gun control.
Bascombe said Republicans “stalled and prevented” Obama from increasing restrictions on gun sales, a stalemate she found frustrating.
“The NRA has so much lobbying power and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” she said. “That’s my angst.”
Protesters were particularly worried about efforts to push for federal legislation to make any state’s concealed-carry permits valid nationwide, which they fear will 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.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on the plane trip from Washington that NRA members supported Trump during the election based on his strong commitment to gun rights. He also cited Trump’s appointment of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
“I know the NRA is glad to have a justice in that seat who is such a staunch defender of the Constitution,” he said.
For Ty Smith, who as a college student in north Georgia helped organize students to vote for Trump, having the president in the same room gave him chills. “I would do anything for this man,” he said.
Smith said he found it inspiring to have a sitting president address the NRA. “For me, I feel like he’s fighting for me,” he said.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Bill Barrow and Kathleen Foody contributed to this report.