HOUSTON — The National Rifle Association begins its annual convention in Houston on Friday, and leaders of the powerful gun-rights lobbying group are gearing up to “reflect on” -- and deflect any blame for -- the deadly shooting earlier this week of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Former President Donald Trump and other leading Republicans are scheduled to address the three-day firearms industry marketing event, which is expected to draw protesters fed up with gun violence.
Some scheduled speakers and performers have backed out, including two Texas lawmakers and “American Pie” singer Don McLean, who said “it would be disrespectful” to go ahead with his act in the aftermath of the country’s latest mass shooting.
While President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have renewed calls for stricter gun laws, NRA board member Phil Journey said the focus should be on better mental health care and trying to prevent gun violence. He said he wouldn't support banning or limiting access to firearms.
The NRA said in an online statement that meeting attendees will “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.”
People planning to attend picked up registration badges Thursday and shopped for NRA souvenirs, such as T-shirts that say “Suns Out Guns Out.” Police already had set up metal barriers across the street from the convention center, at a park where protesters are expected to gather 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 had nothing to do with it. The people who come here had nothing to do with it.”
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's 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 at the event, said he hopes “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.”
Two Republican Texas lawmakers who had been scheduled speak Friday — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw — are no longer attending due to what their staffs said were changes in their schedules.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who was slated to attend, will instead address the convention by prerecorded video, his spokesman told The Dallas Morning News.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was listed as a speaker, and Trump said Wednesday that he still intends to attend. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, also is sticking to her plans to speak Friday at the NRA event.
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.
Several groups have said they planned to stage protests outside of the convention center.
“This 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 must not just have thoughts and prayers from legislators, but rather we need action to address this public health crisis that is affecting our communities.”
Democrat Beto O'Rourke, who is challenging Abbott in the 2022 Texas governor's race, said he would be attending a protest outside the convention Friday.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said the city is 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.
Shannon Watts, the founder of gun-control group Moms Demand Action, said she was not surprised the NRA is not canceling its meeting.
“The real question now is which elected officials will choose to side with violence and go kiss the ring in Houston this weekend instead of siding with communities crying out for public safety,” Watts said.
David A. Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri.