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Months after Parkland shooting, Trump to embrace NRA in rally-like speech

By Jeff Mason

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump, who briefly pledged to fight the National Rifle Association after a February mass shooting at a Florida high school, is expected to throw his full weight behind the powerful gun rights group on Friday at an event in Dallas.

At the group's annual convention, the Republican president will emphasize his support for gun rights in political terms in a speech, likely claiming again that Democrats want to take away Americans' firearms, a White House official said.

This will be Trump's fourth address to the powerful lobbying group. He departed Washington on Friday morning for Dallas.

With control of the U.S. Congress up for grabs in November's midterm elections and campaigns under way, Trump's remarks are expected to include familiar warnings meant to excite the Republican voter base.

"These things typically are pretty 'rah, rah Second Amendment' types of addresses," the official said, adding that Trump likely will say that Democrats oppose the constitutional amendment that protects gun ownership.

Democratic lawmakers generally support tighter gun laws, but specific proposals that they favor, such as universal background checks and a ban on military-style "assault" rifles, would not alter the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment.

The massacre that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 seemed to mark a turning point in America's long-running gun debate, sparking a youth-led movement for tighter gun controls.

Days after the shooting, Trump promised action on gun regulation and at a gathering of state officials, said this of the NRA: "We have to fight them every once in a while."

Since then, no major new federal gun controls have been imposed, although the administration is pursuing a proposed regulatory ban on bump stocks of the sort used in an October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 people.

A bump stock allows a semi-automatic rifle to fire like an automatic one. Semi-automatic assault rifles are sold widely in the United States, which has the world's highest per capita gun ownership rates. The NRA has fiercely defended America's gun ownership rights for many years, citing the Second Amendment.

RHETORICAL SHIFT

Since Parkland, Trump has largely moved his rhetoric back in line with the NRA, which spent $55 million to support him and other Republican candidates in the 2016 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog.

The group's convention in Texas will attract a strongly pro-Trump crowd, officials said, giving the president room to take some swipes at his opponents, review his record in office and complain about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of possible collusion between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia.

The event was likely to be "reminiscent of rallies past," a second White House official said.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll found in March 2018 that 54 percent of adults wanted "strong regulations or restrictions" for firearms. That was up from 39 percent in a similar poll from April 2012.

Among Republicans in the poll, 40 percent wanted strong regulations or restrictions in March 2018, up from 22 percent in April 2012.

Trump met with NRA officials privately at the White House twice in February as he mulled policy responses to the shooting. He eventually endorsed an NRA proposal to arm teachers, a step the group said would help prevent mass school shootings. Gun control activists generally oppose that idea.

Trump initially expressed enthusiasm for measures to close loopholes for gun buyers seeking to avoid the background check system, raise the age limit for buying rifles, and find ways to seize guns temporarily from people reported to be dangerous.

He has since endorsed more modest proposals, such as legislation aimed at providing more data for the background check system. He did not endorse closing a loophole in existing law that would require background checks for guns bought at guns shows or sales arranged over the internet.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Additional reporting by Chris Kahn; Editing by Bill Trott and Alistair Bell)