HOUSTON (AP) — The National Rifle Association began its annual convention in Houston on Friday, three days after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school across the state, renewing the national debate on gun violence.
Former President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders were scheduled to speak at the event. Leaders of the gun rights lobby group planned to ‘reflect’ – and deflect any blame for – the school shooting in Uvalde. Angry gun violence protesters demonstrated outside, including some holding crosses with pictures of Uvalde shooting victims.
Some scheduled speakers and performers withdrew from the event, including several Texas lawmakers and “American Pie” singer Don McLean, who said “it would be disrespectful” to continue his act after the latest mass shooting in the country. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Friday morning he decided not to speak at a breakfast event after “prayerful consideration and discussion with NRA officials.”
“Although a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and a member of the NRA, I would not want my appearance today to bring any additional pain or grief to the families and all who are suffering in Uvalde,” he said in a statement. “Now is the time to focus on families, first and foremost.”
The NRA said in an online statement that those attending the gun show would “reflect” on the Uvalde school shooting, “pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members and pledge to redouble their of commitment to secure our schools”.
The meeting is the first for the struggling organization since 2019, after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. The organization attempted to regroup after a period of severe legal and financial turmoil this included a failed bankruptcy effort, a class action lawsuit, and a fraud investigation by the New York Attorney General. Once among the most powerful political organizations in the country, the NRA has seen its influence wane following a significant drop in political spending.
As President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress renewed their calls for tougher gun laws in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, NRA board members and others at the conference rejected talk of banning or limiting access to guns.
Larry Miller, 56, of Huntington Beach, Calif., said he had no problem with the NRA meeting taking place so soon after the Uvalde shooting. He called the shooting “very sad and unfortunate” and said the shooter had “no respect for the freedoms of the people that we have here in this country”.
“We all share these rights, so respecting other people’s rights is respecting other people’s lives, and I think with that kind of mentality, we should be here,” he said.
Samuel Thornburg, 43, a maintenance worker for Southwest Airlines who was attending the NRA meeting, said he wanted to hear from speakers that “there will be more guns” but also more security for the schools.
“Guns are not bad. It is the people who commit the crime who are evil. Our schools need to be locked down more. We need more guards,” he said.
Inside the convention hall on Friday, thousands of people strolled, stopping at booths displaying displays of handguns, rifles, AR-type firearms, knives, clothing and weapon racks. Outside, police set up metal barriers in a large park where protesters and counter-protesters were expected to congregate outside the downtown convention center.
At a press conference in the protest zone ahead of the main event, singer Little Joe, part of the popular Tejano band Little Joe y La Familia, said that in the more than 60 years that he spent traveling the world, no other country he went to faced as many mass shootings as the United States
“Right across the street we have these people with blood on their hands,” he said tearfully as he spoke. “Of course it’s the best country in the world. But what good is it to us if we can’t protect lives, especially our children?”
Texas has seen a string of mass shootings in recent years. Meanwhile, the Republican-led legislature and governor have relaxed gun laws.
There is precedent for the NRA to come together amid local grief and controversy. The organization went ahead with an abbreviated version of its 1999 meeting in Denver about a week after the fatal shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Actor Charlton Heston, the president of the NRA at the time, told attendees that “horrendous acts” should not become opportunities to limit constitutional rights and he denounced critics for calling members of the NRA of “bad guys”.
Country music singer Larry Gatlin, who pulled out of a scheduled convention appearance, said he hoped “the NRA will rethink some of its outdated and thoughtless positions.”
“While I agree with most of the positions held by the NRA, I have come to believe that while background checks won’t stop every lunatic with a gun, it’s up to at least a step in the right direction,” Gatlin said.
Country singers Lee Greenwood and Larry Stewart have also pulled out, Variety reported..
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that NRA leaders are “contributing to the problem of gun violence and not trying to solve it.” She accused them of representing the interests of arms manufacturers, “who market weapons of war to young adults”.
In addition to Patrick, two Texas congressmen who were scheduled to speak on Friday – US Senator John Cornyn and US Representative Dan Crenshaw – were no longer present due to what their staff said were changes to their schedules. . Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who was scheduled to attend, was instead to address the convention via pre-recorded video.
But others were going ahead with their appearances, including Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Trump, who said Wednesday he would deliver “an important speech to America “.
“America needs real solutions and real leadership right now, not politicians and partisanship,” he wrote on his social media platform.
In an interview Thursday on the Salem Radio Network, Trump reiterated his support for gun rights.
“It’s you, know, an interesting time to make such a speech, frankly,” he said. “You have to protect your Second Amendment. You have to give great protection to this second amendment because without it we would be a very dangerous country, frankly. More dangerous.”
Although personal firearms are permitted at the convention, the NRA said firearms would not be permitted during the session featuring Trump due to Secret Service security protocols.
Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Abbott in the race for Texas governor in 2022, said he would attend the protest outside.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said the city was obligated to host the NRA event, which has been under contract for more than two years. But he urged politicians to do without it.
“You cannot pray and send your condolences one day and then defend arms the next. It’s wrong,” Turner said.
Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed from Jefferson City, Missouri.
Read more about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/school-shootings.