President Donald Trump reaffirmed his support for gun rights Friday, telling attendees of a National Rifle Association convention that "the eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end."
Trump, the first sitting president to address the group's annual convention in more than 30 years, assured the audience that he would defend their right to bear arms in a campaign-like speech reminiscent of his election rallies.
"You have a true friend and champion in the White House," he said.
The president's trip to Atlanta also served as his first foray into a congressional race since taking office. After delivering his NRA remarks, the president headed to a private fundraiser for Republican congressional candidate Karen Handel, who is running in a special congressional race that has become a national referendum on his presidency.
During the speech, the president congratulated Handel and urged Republicans to support her.
"She's totally for the NRA, and she's totally for the Second Amendment, so get out and vote," he said.
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 sparked protests from people advocating for stricter gun control measures. They included Steve Hagen, who called the NRA's push for federal legislation to make any state's concealed-carry permits valid nationwide "the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
"I guess the promoters are throwing states' rights out the window," Hagen, a 68-year-old from the Atlanta suburb of Tucker. "It's just crazy."
Opponents of the bill 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 mentioned again on Friday that 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.
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 Judge Neil 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.
Kevin Michalowski, executive editor of a 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."
Trump attendance at the private fundraiser for Handel is his first such endeavor for a congressional hopeful since he took 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 voters put the future House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the seat — 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.
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow, Lisa Marie Pane and Kathleen Foody in Atlanta contributed to this report.