Washington (AFP) - The National Rifle Association on Friday endorsed Donald Trump for US president, saying it was time to unite behind the Republican or "kiss your guns goodbye" if Hillary Clinton is elected.
"We have to unite and we have to unite right now," Chris Cox, head of the NRA's lobbying arm, said at the gun rights group's annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky.
"So on behalf of the thousands of patriots in this room, the five million NRA members across this country, and the tens of millions who support us, I'm officially announcing the NRA's endorsement of Donald Trump for president."
The NRA's endorsement of a Republican nominee is no surprise.
But the timing is notable because it came months earlier than in the previous two election cycles, suggesting the nation's largest gun-rights advocacy group was seeking to help the Republican Party unite conservatives fractured over Trump.
The group's chief executive Wayne LaPierre declared it was time to prevent Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, from gaining the White House and appointing a new justice to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.
"If she gets just one Supreme Court nomination, Hillary's court will hold that the (US Constitution's) Second Amendment is a government right, not an individual right, and you can kiss your guns goodbye," LaPierre said.
Trump was welcomed warmly as he received the endorsement, promising: "I will not let you down."
- Gun rights 'under threat' -
"We're getting rid of gun-free zones, OK? I can tell you," Trump said to loud applause.
He also took aim at President Barack Obama's executive orders on reducing gun violence issued after December's San Bernardino shootings, including the plan to crack down on unregulated Internet gun sales.
"They'll be un-signed the first hour that I'm in office," Trump pledged.
The New York billionaire touted his own support for gun rights, boasting that he is a "long-term" NRA member and one of 13 million Americans with permits to carry firearms.
"I happen to be one of them," he said. "Nobody knows that. Boy, would I surprise somebody if they hit Trump."
He also quipped that his sons are avid shooters with so many guns that "sometimes even I get a little bit concerned."
Trump sought to paint former secretary of state Clinton as an anti-gun radical and "dictator" who will take away Americans' constitutional right to bear arms.
"The Second Amendment is under a threat like never before," Trump declared.
"Crooked Hillary Clinton is the most anti-gun, anti-Second-Amendment candidate ever to run for office."
Clinton has made reducing gun violence a key plan of her campaign platform.
Speaking Sunday at the majority black Canaan Christian Church, also in Louisville, Clinton pledged to build on Obama's efforts to keep firearms out of the wrong hands.
"But it also means we... have to combat the culture of gun violence," she said. "For too many people, particularly young people in our country today, they seem to think that guns can solve their problem."
Her campaign says Clinton supports "sensible action" to address the issue, including expanding comprehensive background checks, cracking down on illegal gun traffickers, keeping weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers, and repealing an NRA-backed law that shields gun manufacturers and sellers from lawsuits.
The NRA was gearing for battle over the contentious gun control issue.
"You want to turn this election into a do-or-die fight over the Second Amendment? Bring it on," Cox challenged.
Meanwhile Trump repeated his assertion that last year's terror strikes in France could have been minimized or even avoided if citizens had been armed.
"Paris is, probably in the world, the toughest place to have a gun," he said.
"No guns on the other side, folks. If you would have had guns on the other side... I promise there wouldn't have been 130 people killed."