DALLAS - President Donald Trump on Friday linked the sanctity of the Second Amendment to his party's prospects in the 2018 midterm elections, telling supporters at the National Rifle Association's annual convention that "we've got to get Republicans elected."
Trump struck a tough tone months after he briefly strayed from the NRA's message in the days after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. He vowed that the Second Amendment will "never ever be under siege as long as I am your president."
Trump's speech in Dallas was his fourth consecutive appearance at the NRA's annual convention. His gun comments were folded into a campaign-style speech, which touched on the Russia probe, the 2016 campaign, illegal immigration and his efforts in North Korea and Iran.
Trump said Democrats want to "outlaw guns" and said if the nation takes that step, it might as well ban all vans and trucks because they are the new weapons for "maniac terrorists."
The speech came as the issue of gun violence has taken on new urgency after one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Student survivors of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 people dead, are now leading a massive national gun control movement. They too are looking to the midterm elections for action.
Though Trump embraced the Second Amendment right to bear arms before Friday's speech, he had temporarily strayed from the strong anti-gun control message in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. While the shooting has not led to major changes from the White House or the Republican-led Congress, it did -- at least briefly -- prompt Trump to declare that he would stand up to the powerful gun lobby. He later backpedaled on that tough talk.
Trump referenced the Parkland shooting in his speech, saying he "mourned for the victims and their families" and saying he has taken steps on school safety. He noted that he signed a recent spending bill that included modest provisions to strengthen the federal background check system for gun purchases and money to improve school safety. He also repeated his support for "letting highly trained teachers carry concealed weapons."
Trump said some people had advised him that attending might be controversial, but added: "You know what I said? `Bye-bye, gotta get on the plane."'
But one of the Parkland student survivors, David Hogg, was critical of Trump's planned attendance.
"It's kind of hypocritical of him to go there after saying so many politicians bow to the NRA and are owned by them," Hogg said. "It proves that his heart and his wallet are in the same place."
During a televised gun meeting with lawmakers in late February, Trump wagged his finger at a Republican senator and scolded him for being "afraid of the NRA," declaring that he would stand up to the group and finally get results in quelling gun violence.
Those words rattled some Republicans in Congress and sparked hope among gun-control advocates that, unlike after previous mass shootings, tougher regulations would be enacted this time. But Trump later retreated on those words, expressing support for modest changes to the background check system, as well as arming teachers.
Vice President Mike Pence also offered a vigorous defense of gun rights. He pointed to work by Trump's administration to address school security and support for changes to the background check system, as well as arming teachers.
"The quickest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the vice president said.
He faulted media outlets for not telling "the whole story about firearms in America" and the role of "firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens" making communities safer.
But perhaps the most poignant moment of the day, came in the run-up to the president when Stephen Willeford addressed the crowd. He's the man who grabbed his AR-15 and confronted then chased down the shooter at the Sutherland Spring Baptist Church last November where 26 people were killed.
“I want you guys to look around at each other and understand we are the NRA. We are the people that stand between the people that would do evil to our neighbors,” he told the crowd. “I’m nothing special. Look at you guys. Everyone one of you would do what I did, and I love you all.”
Senators John Cornyn, Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott heaped praised Willeford. His remarks focused less on the politics the NRA is so known for getting tangled up in and more on the pride that gun owners carry with them.
“I took care of my community that day,” Willeford said. “And I would do it again as each one of you indicated you would.”
Several groups announced plans to protest over the weekend. The protesters will include parents of those killed in Parkland and in other shootings.
Given the current debate in the United States over gun control, Dallas Mayor Pro-Temp Dwaine Caraway did not want the meeting to happen in the city.
Dallas police said officers will be at the convention center to maintain a peaceful atmosphere. There are groups planning to stage protests in support of tighter gun laws but they are being kept away from the immediate area.
Many of the protestors say they want what they call common sense gun laws.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.