HOUSTON (AP) — The National Rifle Association began its annual convention in Houston amid protests 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. Hundreds of protesters angry about gun violence demonstrated outside, including some holding crosses with photos of the Uvalde shooting victims.
Some scheduled speakers and performers backed out of the event, 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 members and others attending the conference dismissed talk of banning or limiting access to firearms.
Larry Miller, 56, from Huntington Beach, California, 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 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.
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 safety for schools.
“Guns are not evil. It’s the people that are committing the crime that are evil. Our schools need to be more locked. There need to be more guards,” he said.
Inside the convention hall Friday, thousands of people walked around, stopping at booths that featured displays of handguns, rifles, AR-style firearms, knives, clothing and gun racks. Outside, police set up metal barriers at a large park where several hundred protesters and counterprotesters gathered in front of the downtown convention center.
At a news conference in the protest area before the main speaking event, singer Little Joe, who is with the popular Tejano band Little Joe y La Familia, said in the more than 60 years he's spent touring the world, no other country he’s been to has faced as many mass shootings as the U.S.
“Just across the street we have these people with blood on their hands," he said, crying as he spoke. “Of course, this is the best country in the world. But what good does it do us if we can’t protect lives, especially of our children?"
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.”
Country music singer Larry Gatlin, who pulled out of a planned appearance at this year's convention, 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."
Most U.S. adults think that mass shootings would occur less often if guns were harder to get, and that schools and other public places have become less safe than they were two decades ago, polling finds.
Many specific measures that would curb access to guns or ammunition also get majority support. A May AP-NORC poll found, for instance, that 51% of U.S. adults favor a nationwide ban on the sale of AR-15 rifles and similar semiautomatic weapons. But the numbers are highly partisan, with 75% percent of Democrats agreeing versus just 27% of Republicans.
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 because of 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 Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Trump, who said Wednesday that he would deliver “an important address to America."
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.
Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed from Jefferson City, Missouri.
More on the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/school-shootings.