Sitting under a Beretta pistol banner roughly the size of a small house, Loran Braught scratches his short white mustache as he considers whether a Manhattan real estate developer will protect his right to carry.
It’s a question that Donald Trump, a billionaire from New York who once supported restricting gun rights, will have to put to rest on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky, where he’s scheduled to speak to tens of thousands of gun enthusiasts at the National Rifle Association’s annual conference.
“He wasn’t my first choice,” said Braught, an 82-year-old retiree from Terre Haute, Indiana, wearing a blue t-shirt given to the NRA’s most consistent donors. “And there were a lot of other Republicans who had a better record on the Second Amendment.”
But Braught now backs Trump, he says, for one big reason: Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, has made limiting access to guns a central piece of her primary campaign. But just as important is the idea that Washington needs the former reality TV show host’s brash attitude and bravado.
“He doesn’t have a lot of NRA history, but I can get comfortable with Trump,” said Jim Finch, a retiree from Billings, Montana, attending the NRA convention. “He’s going to make the damned establishment sit up and take notice of what’s going on in the republic."
This perception helped conservative voters during the primary overlook behavior that would have doomed other candidates. It helps explain how Trump, who has said his foreign policy experience comes from the Sunday talks shows, was consistently the most trusted Republican candidate to combat terrorism.
For some voters, outspoken support for the Second Amendment represents strength and aggressiveness. At the NRA convention ahead of the 2000 presidential election, actor Charlton Heston said Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, could take gun rights away “from my cold, dead hands.”
“Trump has been all over the map on the Second Amendment, but a lot of the NRA’s membership is pro-Trump,” said Richard Feldman, a former political organizer for the NRA. “The NRA leadership might not want to back him, but they don’t have much choice. He’s going to get a very nice reception in Louisville.”
The nation’s largest gun lobby, the NRA has been a political force in elections since at least 1994, turning out its supporters for candidates who back expanding access to guns. After the 2000 presidential election, the NRA calculated that 87 percent of the candidates it endorsed won, including Republican President George W. Bush, who defeated Gore.
Since then, no significant gun-control bill has advanced on Capitol Hill.
Trump’s history on the Second Amendment is decidedly mixed. In 2000, he supported an assault weapons ban and a waiting period to purchase firearms. In his 2000 book "The America We Deserve," Trump criticized Republican lawmakers who “walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions.”
“If Donald Trump becomes president, the Second Amendment will be written out of the Constitution,” former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a Texas Senator, said on ABC News in February. “It is abundantly clear that Donald Trump is not a conservative.”
But Trump has come around on the issue. He backs a federal law requiring states to recognize conceal-carry permits from other states, and has said fewer people would have died in terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California, had the victims been armed. One of his first policy papers was on gun rights. Trump said: "Protecting our Second Amendment rights will make America great again.”
“I am the strongest person running in favor of the Second Amendment,” Trump said in February in South Carolina. “I am member of the NRA.”
Trump also has a conceal carry permit in New York, which is common knowledge -- and a point of pride -- among attendees at the conference.
Still, not everyone at the conference is thrilled about Trump's candidacy.
“I’m concerned he could go either way once he’s in office -- he’s about finding compromises, and that’s not a good thing when it comes to gun rights,” said Jeff Comaris, a 54-year-old engineer from North Carolina. “But I’ll probably support him, if only because I don’t want Hillary in the White House for nothing.”