HOUSTON — The National Rifle Association kicks off its annual convention in Houston on Friday, and leaders of the powerful gun rights lobby group are preparing to “reflect” — and deflect all blame for — the fatal shooting earlier this week of 19 children and two teachers in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Former President Donald Trump and other leading Republicans are set to speak at the three-day gun marketing and defense event, which is expected to draw protesters tired of gun violence.
Some scheduled speakers and performers pulled out, including two Texas lawmakers and ‘American Pie’ singer Don McLean, who said ‘it would be disrespectful’ to continue with his act in the wake of the latest mass shooting in the country.
As President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress renewed their calls for tougher gun laws, NRA board member Phil Journey said the focus should be on better mental health care and gun violence prevention. He said he would not support banning or limiting access to guns.
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 of commitment to secure our schools”.
People planning to attend collected registration badges on Thursday and bought NRA memorabilia, such as T-shirts that read “Suns Out Guns Out.” Police had already installed metal barriers in front of the convention center, in a park where protesters are expected to gather on Friday.
Gary Francis traveled with his wife and friends from Racine, Wisconsin to attend the NRA meeting. He said he opposed any gun control regulations in response to the Uvalde shooting.
“What happened there is obviously tragic,” he said. “But the NRA has nothing to do with it. The people who come here have nothing to do with it.”
Texas has seen a series 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”.
Rocky Marshall, a former NRA board member, said that while the Uvalde tragedy “casts the reunion in a bad light,” that’s no reason to cancel it. Marshall said gun rights advocates and opponents can perhaps reduce gun violence if they focus on factors like mental illness or school safety.
“Throwing rocks at the NRA doesn’t solve the next mass shooting,” he said. “Throwing rocks at people who hate guns won’t solve the next mass shooting.”
But country music singer Larry Gatlin, who pulled out of a scheduled appearance at the event, said he hopes “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 all 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”.
Two Texas Republican lawmakers who were scheduled to speak on Friday — U.S. Senator John Cornyn and U.S. Representative Dan Crenshaw — are no longer in attendance due to what their staff said were changes to their schedules.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who was scheduled to attend, will instead address the convention via pre-recorded video, his spokesman told the Dallas Morning News.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was listed as the speaker, and Trump said Wednesday he still intends to attend. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, is also sticking to her plans to speak at the NRA event on Friday.
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.
Several groups said they planned to hold protests outside the convention center.
“Now is not the time or the place to have this convention,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of FIEL, a Houston-based civil rights group that plans to participate in protests. “We not only need to have thoughts and prayers from lawmakers, but rather we need action to address this public health crisis affecting our communities.
Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Abbott in the race for governor of Texas in 2022, said he would attend a protest outside the convention on Friday.
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 can’t pray and send your condolences one day and then stand up in arms the next. That’s wrong,” Turner said.
Shannon Watts, the founder of gun control group Moms Demand Action, said she wasn’t surprised the NRA didn’t cancel her meeting.
“The real question now is which elected officials will choose to side with violence and go ring kissing in Houston this weekend instead of siding with the communities calling for public safety,” he said. watts.