Gun rights activists rallied to candidate Donald Trump in ways unprecedented in modern politics, and as president Mr. Trump is about to repay them with a personal speech this week at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention.
He becomes the first sitting president to appear since Ronald Reagan, and Second Amendment advocates say they are likely to give him a hero’s welcome, praising the change in attitude at the top of the administration, the Supreme Court pick of Justice Neil Gorsuch and other moves.
“If I had to grade him based upon everything that’s on his plate that he has to deal with, I’d have to give him an A,” said Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “There’s no doubt that he calmed the fears of gun owners around the country that the federal government [will] be used as a tool to take their constitutionally protected rights away. I mean, there’s no two ways about that.”
The NRA, in somewhat of a surprise move, endorsed Mr. Trump at its convention last year — months before he formally accepted the Republican presidential nomination. The group was one of Mr. Trump’s largest outside backers in terms of TV air support and advocacy.
It marked a stunning turnaround for Mr. Trump, who in 2000 said he supported stricter firearms controls, then turned into one of the fiercest opponents of those controls as a presidential candidate.
“This president ran as the most pro-Second Amendment, pro-individual freedom candidate in the history of the country, and if you look at how he’s governed over the first 100 days, he’s arguably been the most effective and most successful in the first hundred days of any presidency,” Chris Cox, the head of the NRA’s lobbying arm, said in a recent appearance on Fox News.
More than 80,000 NRA members are anticipated at this year’s convention in Atlanta.
In addition to Mr. Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke are also slated to address the NRA Institute for Legislative Action’s leadership forum on Friday.
But Mr. Trump is undoubtedly the main attraction, and his appearance at the conference sends a solid message to gun owners, said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
“He courted gun owners, and sometimes you get courted by politicians and then once they’re elected you’re” forgotten, Mr. Van Cleave said. “The fact that he’s going to the convention is just one more indication that when he’s saying something, he means it.”
Gun control groups are just as energized and are vowing to oppose Mr. Trump at every turn. They are organizing a rally in Atlanta for Saturday, the day after the president’s expected speech.
The groups said they are preparing to try to stop NRA-led initiatives such as national reciprocity for concealed-carry permits obtained in one state.
“The extremist leadership of the NRA spent $30 million for a seat at the table in the White House, and they are doing everything they can to get a return on that investment,” said Erika Soto Lamb, a spokeswoman for the group Everytown for Gun Safety.
Gun rights backers have big hopes for Mr. Trump, though early efforts have been modest.
The president did sign into law a repeal of Obama-era regulations that would have required the Social Security Administration to scour its records for people with mental deficiencies and who were deemed unable to handle their finances and flag them as potential dangers who must be blocked by the national background check database.
Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, applauded Mr. Zinke’s move to lift an Obama-era ban on using lead ammunition on certain federal lands.
“President Trump has done more for gun rights in his first 100 days than any president in recent memory,” Mr. Pratt said. “Moving forward, we hope that whatever Obamacare ‘fix’ he pushes, it will prevent insurance companies, doctors and the ATF from furthering a gun control agenda.”
Gun rights groups spent much of the past eight years trying to derail attempts by Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats to impose further restrictions on gun purchases, to expand background checks to cover personal sales or trades and to limit ammunition magazine capacity.
But Americans, fearful of harsher restrictions, rushed to stock up, setting purchase records in what became known as the Obama gun boom.
Early evidence suggests that the buying spree has been curtailed with Mr. Trump in office.