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Trump Brings Campaign Rhetoric To NRA Speech, Pledging Gun-Rights Support

President Trump speaks during the National Rifle Association-ILA Leadership Forum on Friday in Atlanta.
Mike Stewart
President Trump speaks during the National Rifle Association-ILA Leadership Forum on Friday in Atlanta.

Updated at 4:50 p.m. ET.

President Trump spoke to the National Rifle Association's annual leadership forum on Friday, the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to do so.

"We have news that you've been waiting for ... a long time," Trump told the crowd in Atlanta. "The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end."

Much of his speech echoed the rhetoric he used on the campaign, and has continued at rallies during his first 100 days in office.

Trump reiterated his desire to build a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border, despite backing off of demands that funding for the project be included in the spending bill that Congress is working on.

"You need that wall to stop the human trafficking, to stop the drugs, to stop the wrong people, you need the wall," Trump said. "We'll build the wall. Don't even think about it, don't even think about it, don't even think about it. That's an easy one. We're going to build the wall. We need the wall."

He also took familiar jabs at Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. After talking about his victory in the electoral college in November, Trump said many candidates will be swarming the NRA looking for support next election cycle.

"But you're not going to be wasting your time. You'll have plenty of those Democrats coming over, and you'll say, 'No sir, no thank you,' " Trump said. "Perhaps 'Ma'am.' It may be Pocahontas, remember that. And she is not big for the NRA, let me tell you."

Trump has repeatedly called Warren "Pocahontas" because of a controversy over her claiming Native American heritage in professional directories.

"Get out and vote"

Trump did encourage NRA support for Georgia Sixth District candidate Karen Handel. Trump is also scheduled to appear at a fundraiser for the Republican while he's in the state. Handel is running in what has become a closely watched June runoff against Democrat Jon Ossoff. The seat was vacated by Rep. Tom Price when Trump selected Price as his secretary of Health and Human Services.

Trump opened his speech Friday by congratulating Handel for making it to the runoff. "She's totally for the NRA, and she's totally for the Second Amendment, so get out and vote," he said.

The NRA hoped to hear a clear message from the president, NPR spokesperson Jason Brown said before Friday's event: "Protecting gun rights, expanding gun rights and getting rid of legislation and gun rights restrictions in this country to make the Second Amendment more powerful than it ever has been before."

On Friday, Trump delivered that message, though without proposing specifics.

"As your president, I will never ever infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms," Trump said. "Never, ever. Freedom is not a gift from government, freedom is a gift from God."

Trump told the NRA he would "never, ever let you down" and thanked the group for backing him on Nov. 8 "in what will hopefully be one of the most important and positive elections for the United States, of all time."

The group's support was indeed crucial to Trump's campaign. The NRA spent more than three times as much money to help Trump in 2016 as it did to back Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, according to The Washington Post.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, the NRA worked hard to portray Democrat Hillary Clinton as a candidate bent on destroying the Second Amendment. Before Trump spoke on Friday, the crowd booed as a Clinton attack ad played in the convention hall.

Not always in line

But Trump and the NRA haven't always had the smoothest of relationships.

On the campaign trail, Trump made a habit of talking about how mass shootings could be prevented if the victims involved were carrying guns.

After the Paris terror attacks in November 2015:

"When you look at Paris, you know, the toughest gun laws in the world, Paris, nobody had guns but the bad guys."

And after the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., and Roseburg, Ore.:

"You can make the case that it would've been a lot better had people had guns because they had something to fire back."

However, when Trump tried to apply the same logic to the mass shooting in a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., last summer, the NRA took issue.

"If we had people, where the bullets were going in the opposite direction, right smack between the eyes of this maniac," Trump said to cheers at a rally in Texas. "And this son of a b**** comes out and starts shooting and one of the people in that room happened to have (a gun) and goes boom, boom. You know what, that would have been a beautiful, beautiful sight, folks."

Almost immediately the group publicly denounced his comments.

"No one thinks that people should go into a nightclub drinking and carrying firearms," NRA lobbyist Chris Cox said at the time, on ABC. "That defies common sense. It also defies the law."

Trump walked back the comments on Twitter, but it wasn't the first time the group and Trump haven't seen completely eye to eye. In his 2000 book The America We Deserve, Trump said he supported the 10-year assault weapons ban President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994.

"I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun," Trump wrote. "With today's Internet technology we should be able to tell within 72 hours if a potential gun owner has a record."

In a March 2016 debate, Trump was asked about the passage, and he replied "I don't support it anymore. I do not support the ban on assault" weapons.

A shift in focus

Trump's message was markedly different than the speech Ronald Reagan gave 34 years ago. While Reagan did spend time talking about the successful defeat of an effort to register handguns in California, he spent just as much time framing the gun debate around environmental policy.

"The backbone of our conservation efforts begins with American sportsmen," he said.

The gun debate then was much less heated, says UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight, a 2011 book detailing the history of guns in America.

"Now the NRA is really focused solely on self-defense and fighting against government tyranny," Winkler said.

Trump did briefly touch on the environmental aspects of the NRA, joking that his sons loved the outdoors more than they loved New York's Fifth Avenue, and pointing out that his new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rolled back an Obama-era action that restricted the use of lead bullets on federal wildlife refuges.

Trump's most notable gun-related action so far was his reversal of an Obama-era regulation that required the Social Security Administration to disclose mental health information to the national gun background-check system.

Lisa Hagan, a reporter with member station WABE in Atlanta, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.