HOUSTON — One by one, gun rights activists and politicians who showed up at the National Rifle Association convention on Friday said they were shocked, shocked and shocked by the massacre of 19 children and two adults a few days earlier in Uvalde, Texas.
One by one, they then dismissed any suggestion that gun control measures were needed to stop mass shootings. They blamed the atrocities on factors unrelated to firearms: the collapse of the American family, untreated mental illness, social media bullying, violent video games and the inexplicable existence of “evil.”
Above all, they tried to divert pressure to support popular overhauls, such as extensive background checks, by addressing the issue of school security, amid reports that the gunman in Uvalde had gained easy access to Robb Elementary School through an unguarded door.
Speaking at the event’s keynote session late Friday, Former President Donald J. Trump called for “impenetrable security at every school across our country,” adding that “schools should be the hardest target.”
He began his remarks gloomily reciting the names of the dead in Uvalde, up to the toll of the registered church bells. But he quickly jumped on the attack, blaming President Biden, who has provided billions in education aid, for increasing military spending rather than paying for more school security.
In 2018, after the Parkland, Florida shooting that killed 17 students, the Trump administration convened a school safety committee. The most concrete step was to repeal school policies designed to ensure that minority children were not unfairly disciplined, which critics say did not directly address the issue of gun violence.
Mr. Trump was greeted with thunderous applause from supporters, some of them wearing oversized NRA convention credentials over their fading Trump-Pence T-shirts.
But behind the bravado was an uneasy modulation between despair and resistance. A convention that promised to be a key test for a scandal and internal conflict-weakened NRA, even before Uvalde, spotlighted the Republican Party’s struggles to reconcile near-total opposition to gun control with growing outrage after a spate of mass killings made possible by easy access to semi-automatic weapons.
“They’ve been doing this for years,” said Kellye Burke, 54, a Houston gun control activist who took part in an anti-NRA protest in the park across from the convention center. “They talk about the tragedy and blame it on something other than guns.”
Out of Opinion: The Texas School Shooting
Times Opinion commentary on the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Ovidia Molina, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, was moved by talking about children bearing the brunt of repeated violence. “Every time I hear that another school has been shot — every time I hear that another school has been shot — it breaks my heart,” she said, along with school shooting survivors and gun control activists at an event hosted by teachers’ unions in Houston. to the NRA convention. “It shouldn’t be their burden to carry, to get adults to take action to save the lives of our children.”
The convention was well attended but not completely full; the forum Mr Trump hosted was held in an auditorium that appeared to be about three-quarters occupied.
The convention had its share of no-shows. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the state’s top senator, John Cornyn, both resigned, citing other commitments. Several major artists, including Lee Greenwood, Don McLean and Larry Gatlin, have opted out because of their respect for the victims and their families.
Steve Reed, the vice president of marketing at Daniel Defense, the weapons manufacturer that made the weapon used in the attack, also withdrew. “We believe this week is not the right time to promote our products in Texas at the NRA meeting,” he wrote in a statement.
The massacre dominated the conversation at the convention center. Attendees checking their guns at the “knife check” desk discussed local police response times — and some NRA employees and volunteers peeked into the press room where TVs were reporting the story to Fox News.
Despite these concerns, many in attendance expressed anger at the negative press coverage the NRA has received, with some urging resistance in the face of growing calls for gun control.
Senator Ted Cruz, who led Trump onstage, began his speech with a tribute to the dead in Uvalde. He then offered an unabashed defense of gun rights and warned NRA members that the liberal “elites” would try to capitalize on the tragedy to destroy the Second Amendment.
“Now is not the time to give in to panic,” Cruz said.
Wayne LaPierre, the controversial head of the NRA, opened the convention by declaring “the evil” of the attack in Uvalde. Then he quickly turned around and said the federal government couldn’t “be lawful against evil,” saying Mr Biden’s gun control proposals would “limit the basic human right of law-abiding Americans to defend themselves.”
Rank-and-file NRA members, along with journalists, began streaming into the George R. Brown Convention Center late Thursday for a three-day convention scheduled Friday through Sunday.
The NRA convention was scheduled months ago, before the murders in Uvalde and a racist attack on a supermarket in Buffalo earlier this month that left 10 people dead. Both shooters used semi-automatic AR-15 types that have been legal since the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, a major win for the NRA
“Our deepest condolences go out to the families and victims involved in this heinous and malicious crime,” the NRA said. said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Mr Trump’s performance was the highlight of the convention for many in attendance. But what he said — he strayed from the script to his usual litany of complaints and digressions after discussing school safety — was arguably less important to the NRA than just his decision to honor his commitment to come.
“Unlike some, I didn’t let you down by not showing up,” he said to loud applause.
In the wake of past assassinations, Mr. Trump has been more willing than many of the gun rights activists who support him to embrace gun reforms — though more modest, such as extensive background checks.
But it is Mr Trump’s impetuous, entrenched, and most importantly, consistent support for their cause that mattered most to the hundreds in attendance, most of them white and middle-aged, who lined up to hear him speak.
“He’s always with us and always supports us when a lot of people run the other way,” said Bob Legge, 52, a Houston construction manager. “I think coming here at this point is huge.”
Ellen Pentland, an NRA member from Houston, said she was “extremely sad” for the families of the victims and called for programs to improve school safety, moderate extreme social media content and “address the terrible mental health problems.” out there”.
Uvalde’s shooter had no record of mental health problems, officials say.
Trump’s many admirers in the NRA said ahead of his speech on Friday that they expected him to extend his condolences to the victims of the latest massacre, then reiterated his support for the gun rights movement.
“He knows it’s not the NRA’s fault,” said Nyla Cheely, 64, who traveled from Palm Springs, California, and spent the past few days mulling over the fact that Mr. Trump might not show up.
“But he hasn’t canceled,” she added. “He’s here to support us. I’m really happy.”
Sarah Mervosh contributed reporting from New York, and Luke Vander Ploeg from Houston.