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Tuesday July 5th, 2022 6:32AM

NRA meets in Texas after school massacre, protest roils

By The Associated Press
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HOUSTON (AP) — One by one, they took the stage at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention and denounced the massacre of 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school across the state. And one by one, they insisted that changing U.S. gun laws or further restricting access to firearms was not the answer.

“We must not react to evil and tragedy by abandoning the Constitution or infringing on the rights of our law-abiding citizens,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was among the Republican leaders who lined up to speak before the gun rights lobbying group Friday as hundreds of protesters angry about gun violence demonstrated outside.

Former President Donald Trump, in his remarks, was set to call for “drastically” changing the nation’s approach to mental health” and “a top-to-bottom security overhaul at schools across this country,” while dismissing calls to disarm gun owners, according to excerpts of his speech.

“The existence of evil in our world is not a reason to disarm law-abiding citizens — the existence of evil is one of the very best reasons to arm law-abiding citizens,” he will say, according to the excerpts.

The gathering came just three days after the shooting in Uvalde and after revelations that students trapped inside a classroom with the gunman repeatedly called 911 during the attack — one pleading “Please send the police now" — as officers waited in the hallway for more than 45 minutes.

The NRA had said that convention attendees would “reflect on” the shooting at the event and “pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”

Wayne LaPierre, the group’s chief executive, began with remarks bemoaning "Twenty-one beautiful lives ruthlessly and indiscriminately extinguished by a criminal monster.”

Still, he said that “restricting the fundamental human rights of law-abiding Americans to defend themselves is not the answer. It never has been.”

Later, several hundred people in the auditorium stood and bowed their heads in a moment of silence for the victims of the Uvalde school shooting. There were many empty seats.

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.

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 wrote in a statement.

Outside the convention hall, hundreds of protesters gathered in a park where police set up metal barriers — some holding crosses with photos of the Uvalde shooting victims.

“Murderers!” some yelled in Spanish. “Shame on you!” others shouted at attendees.

Among the protesters was singer Little Joe, of the popular Tejano band Little Joe y La Familia, who 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.

“Of course, this is the best country in the world,” he said. “But what good does it do us if we can’t protect lives, especially of our children?”

Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in the governor’s race, ticked off a list of previous school shootings and called on those attending the convention to “join us to make sure that this no longer happens in this country.”

“The time to have stopped Uvalde was right after Sandy Hook,” O’Rourke said. “The time for us to have stopped Uvalde was right after Parkland. The time for us to have stopped Uvalde was right after Santa Fe High School. The time for us to stop the next mass shooting in this country is right now, right here, today with every single one of us.”

While President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have renewed calls for stricter gun laws after 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 in Houston who was attending the NRA meeting, said, “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."

The speakers followed suit.

“There have been too damn many of these killings and we must act decisively to stop them,” said Cruz, who is considered a potential presidential candidate in 2024. “But what is the something we should do?" He dismissed Democrats' calls for universal background checks and banning assault-style weapons.

In his view, “Their so-called solutions wouldn’t have stopped these mass murders.”

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another potential presidential contender, said calls to further restrict gun access are "all about control and it is garbage. I’m not buying it for a second and you shouldn’t, either.”

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 during 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.”

Most U.S. adults think that mass shootings would occur less often if guns were harder to get and believe 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. Abbott, who was to attend, addressed the convention by prerecorded video instead.

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.

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Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed from Jefferson City, Missouri.

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More on the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/school-shootings.

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