The NRA’s annual convention starts in Atlanta today

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Workers put the finishing touches on the convention floor at the Georgia World Congress Center. Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The National Rifle Association’s annual convention, today through Sunday in downtown Atlanta, features an address by President Donald Trump, a concert by Hank Williams Jr. and 10 acres of firearms and shooting and hunting gear.

Supporters are looking forward to embracing their Second Amendment rights while protesters plan to exercise their First Amendment ones.

The convention is expected to draw 80,000 people.

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Trump is scheduled to address the 146th NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits, as the gathering is officially called, shortly after noon on Friday. Other scheduled speakers include U.S. Sen. David Perdue, Georgia’s junior senator, along with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. (A full schedule and details on attending are online at home.nra.org).

“Our Constitution is precious, ” celebrity hunting and shooting instructor Kristy Titus, a brand ambassador for Cabela’s and a number of other outfits, said during a quick interview Wednesday morning before she hopped a plane from Oregon.

“Preserving the right to keep and bear arms is of first and foremost importance. I’m a strong believer in the Second Amendment.”

She’ll lead a shooting seminar and plans to hit a number of sessions this weekend. A key part of her focus is helping women learn to handle firearms safely.

“Women are the leaders in homes. Getting women comfortable with firearms is important, ” said Titus, who’s aware of protest efforts planned to coincide with the convention. “If they have a problem with criminals having firearms, we need to address criminal sentencing and getting gangs and thugs off the streets and not criminalizing legal owners.”

The cavernous Georgia World Congress Center, spacious enough to host the enormous gathering and close to hotels and other attractions, makes perfect sense logistically but is a curious one politically. When Trump takes the stage, he’ll be standing squarely in the heart of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. As president-elect, amid a spat with U.S. Rep. John Lewis who represents the district, he tweeted it was “in horrible shape and falling apart, not (to) mention crime infested.”

While attending the event itself requires a ticket (the opening night banquet is already sold out) detractors plan a presence while the convention sessions are taking place.

“This New York mom will be in Atlanta THIS SATURDAY to stand up to the NRA’s dangerous agenda!” one protester tweeted.

“Scores of angry, anti-government gun addicts will converge in ATL this” (weekend) the protest group Betsy Riot tweeted, tagging the U.S. Secret Service’s official handle in the post. “Remain vigilant!”

The group Resist Trump plans a “die-in” protest at Woodruff Park.

Kris VanOrden is coming with his 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, who both shoot competitively.

He has three younger children, and firearm safety is something he’s stressed from early on.

“Guns are just tools, ” he said. “Having guns in the house, it was really important to teach this is how good they can be, this is how bad they can be, taking away the mystery.”

He is happy for protesters to exercise their right to free speech while he and his children exercise their right to keep and bear arms.

“I’m happy that they have the right to protest, ” said VanOrden, who’s driving up from Florida, where he’s stationed with the U.S. Coast Guard. “Good. Voice your opinion. If you want a gun, cool. If you don’t want a gun, that’s cool, too. Just don’t try to take someone else’s rights away. Let’s have an educated conversation about it, not a violent one.”

Mary Kate Farmer, a country singer-songwriter who lives in Woodstock, is excited to meet fans and firearm dealers alike.

“I haven’t been to an NRA convention but I’ve heard amazing things, ” said Farmer, who performs on Sunday afternoon. “These are good, down home, country Christian people who love everything I love.”

Her music career started when she taught herself to play the guitar at age 14, but her love of sport shooting began years earlier. She received an Airsoft gun, which shoots plastic pellets, at age 9. By the time she was old enough to handle real equipment, people marveled at her skills.

“Ever since I was little, my dad has been into hunting and shooting and going to the range, ” she said. “The first time he took me to the range when I got my 9 millimeter, my grouping was unbelievable. Everyone in there called me ‘Dead Eye.'”

Darnell C. Shinholster has been an NRA member for six years but this weekend’s convention will be his first. He is particularly looking forward to hearing from Trump and hopes his address will stress Second Amendment protections.

“I don’t like to see the Second Amendment attacked,” he said. “Guns aren’t the problem. It’s the person with the gun that is the problem. Gun laws don’t affect the criminals.”

A welder who lives in Atlanta and works in Mableton, Shinholster is African-American and wishes more African-Americans would consider membership in the NRA.

Metro Atlanta welder Darnell C. Shinholster, who gave the AJC permission to use this photo, is a six-year NRA member looking forward to this weekend’s convention.

“It’s overwhelmingly white,” Shinholster said of the organization. “It’s not a very large group of African-American members. I’m sure more African-Americans feel the same way I do but they don’t want to join because they’ve heard bad things about the NRA. I enjoy being a member of the NRA because I agree with them on so many issues.”

Not that everyone needs to be packing, he added.

“I believe there should be background checks. Not everyone should have a gun; clearly not people with mental illness, ” he said. “I don’t like gun violence. If you’re able to legally own a gun you should be able to. There’s so much crime in Atlanta. I don’t have a lot of stuff but I work for a living and I don’t want someone to come take it without me being able to defend it.”

Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM