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 on the other side of the state, renewing the national debate over gun violence.
Former President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders were scheduled to speak at the event. Leaders of the gun rights lobbying group planned to “reflect on” — and deflect any blame for — the school shooting in Uvalde. Protesters angry about gun violence planned to demonstrate outside.
Some scheduled speakers and performers backed out of the event before it began, including several Texas lawmakers and “American Pie” singer Don McLean, who said “it would be disrespectful” to go ahead with his act after the country’s latest mass shooting. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Friday morning that he had decided not to speak at an event breakfast after "prayerful consideration and discussion with NRA officials."
“While a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and an NRA member, I would not want my appearance today to bring any additional pain or grief to the families and all those suffering in Uvalde," he said in a statement. “This is a time to focus on the families, first and foremost.”
The NRA said in an online statement that people attending the gun show would “reflect on” the Uvalde school shooting, “pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”
The meeting is the first for the troubled organization since 2019, following a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic. The organization has been trying to regroup following a period of serious legal and financial turmoil that included a failed bankruptcy effort, a class action lawsuit and a fraud investigation by New York's 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.
While President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have renewed calls for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, NRA board member Phil Journey and others attending the conference dismissed talk of banning or limiting access to firearms.
Gary Francis, who traveled with his wife and friends from Racine, Wisconsin, said he opposed new regulations in response to the Uvalde shooting.
“What happened there is obviously tragic,” he said. “But the NRA had nothing to do with it. The people who come here had nothing to do with it.”
Larry Miller, 56, from Huntington Beach, California, said he had no problem with the NRA meeting taking place after the Uvalde shooting. He called the shooting “very sad and unfortunate” and said the gunman didn't "have any respect for the people’s freedoms that we have here in this country.”
“We all share these rights, so to be respectful of other people’s rights is to respect other people’s lives, and I think with that kind of mentality, we should be here," he said.
People planning to attend picked up registration badges and shopped for NRA souvenirs, such as T-shirts that say “Suns Out Guns Out.” Police already had set up metal barriers at a large park where protesters and counterprotesters were expected to gather in front of the downtown convention center.
“I know emotions are high. It’s not going to change anything. We can be respectful,” Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said at a news conference Thursday night.
Texas has experienced a series of mass shootings in recent years. During that time, the Republican-led Legislature and governor have relaxed gun laws.
There is precedent for the NRA to gather amid local mourning and controversy. The organization went ahead with a shortened version of its 1999 meeting in Denver roughly a week after the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Actor Charlton Heston, the NRA president at that time, told attendees that “horrible acts” shouldn’t become opportunities to limit constitutional rights and he denounced critics for casting NRA members as “villains.”
Rocky Marshall, a former NRA board member, said that although the tragedy in Uvalde “does put the meeting in a bad light,” that was not a reason to cancel it. Marshall said gun rights advocates and opponents can perhaps reduce gun violence if they focus on factors such as mental illness or school security.
“Throwing rocks at the NRA, that doesn’t solve the next mass shooting,” he said. “Throwing rocks at the people that hate guns, that doesn’t solve the next mass shooting.”
But country music singer Larry Gatlin, who pulled out of planned appearance, said he hoped “the NRA will rethink some of its outdated and ill-thought-out positions.”
“While I agree with most of the positions held by the NRA, I have come to believe that, while background checks would not stop every madman with a gun, it is at the very least a step in the right direction,” Gatlin said.
Country singers Lee Greenwood and Larry Stewart also withdrew, Variety reported.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that the NRA's leaders “are contributing to the problem of gun violence and not trying to solve it.” She accused them of representing the interests of gun manufacturers, “who are marketing weapons of war to young adults.”
In addition to Patrick, two Texas congressmen who had been scheduled speak Friday — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw — were no longer attending due to what their staffs said were changes in their schedules. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who was to attend, was to address the convention by prerecorded video instead.
But others were going forward with their appearances, including Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and Trump, who said Wednesday that he would deliver “an important address to America.
“America needs real solutions and real leadership in this moment, not politicians and partisanship,” he wrote on his social media platform.
In an interview Thursday on Salem radio network, Trump reiterated his support for gun rights.
"It’s you, know, interesting time to be making such a speech, frankly,” he said. “You have to protect your Second Amendment. You have to give that Second Amendment great protection because, without it, we would be a very dangerous country, frankly. More dangerous.”
Though personal firearms are allowed at the convention, the NRA said guns would not be permitted during the session featuring Trump because of Secret Service security protocols.
Democrat Beto O'Rourke, who is challenging Abbott in the 2022 Texas governor's race, said he would be attending 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 skip it.
"You can’t pray and send condolences on one day and then be going and championing guns on the next. That’s wrong,” Turner said.
David A. Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri. Jill Colvin reported from New York.
More on the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/school-shootings.