Separated from the massacre of 19 elementary school students and two of their teachers by just three days and 500 kilometers, the most powerful gun rights organization in the U.S. opened its annual meeting Friday in Houston.
With the nation still raw from the trauma inflicted by a teenage gunman who used a military-style semi-automatic rifle to bring horror to the small Texas town of Uvalde, the National Rifle Association filled the George R. Brown Convention Center with what it advertised as '14 acres of guns and gear.'
The organization also hosted some of its highest-profile leaders and supporters, including former President Donald Trump, NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre and, representing Texas, Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbot. The governor, who had been scheduled to make a live appearance, announced after the massacre that he would, instead, deliver prerecorded remarks.
The overarching message of the day, hammered home by speaker after speaker, was that there is no need for more regulations governing the purchase of guns in the United States. Rather, they said, schools should be 'hardened' with armed guards and other safeguards, and more measures should be taken to jail felons and identify the mentally ill.
Calls to reschedule ignored
The meeting went on despite calls from many critics to cancel it out of respect for Uvalde's victims. While those demands went unmet, the proximity of the meeting to the killings, in both time and place, seemed to cause a number of scheduled speakers to rethink their plans.
Texas Senator John Cornyn and Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw, both scheduled to speak, announced scheduling conflicts. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a vocal gun rights supporter, also backed out of an appearance.
A number of musical guests who had been scheduled to entertain attendees, including country music stars Lee Greenwood and Larry Gatlin, also pulled out following the tragedy.
Setting the tone
LaPierre, in opening remarks, acknowledged that mass shootings, like the one in Uvalde, cause 'gut wrenching, unimaginable pain' and 'should never happen again.'
But LaPierre also set the tone for the rest of the meeting, arguing that there is no need for any additional restrictions on gun ownership. Instead, he called for increasing security around schools in the United States, fixing the country's 'broken' mental health system and putting more criminals in jail.
He also painted a dark picture of the United States, claiming that 'hate-filled vile monsters walk among us,' and insisting that armed citizens are necessary to defend against an 'evil criminal element that plagues our society.'
He said, 'There can be no freedom, no security, no safety without the right of the law-abiding to bear arms for self-defense.'
Texas officials speak
In his remarks, Abbott argued that additional gun laws would not have made a difference in Uvalde.
'There are thousands of laws on the books across the country that limit the owning or using of a firearm,' Abbott said. 'Laws that have not stopped madmen from carrying out evil acts on innocent people in peaceful communities.'
When Cruz took the stage, he acknowledged the 'crushing darkness' he felt from the Uvalde massacre. He also listed the various shootings sites in Texas that he has visited since taking office, naming examples of mass killings in Dallas, Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe, El Paso and the cities of Midland and Odessa. Each, he said, was 'the picture of horror.'
However, like LaPierre and others at the event, Cruz said that more restrictions on firearm ownership are not the answer to gun violence, noting that cities with strong gun laws, like Chicago, Baltimore and Washington suffer from high rates of firearm homicide.
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Instead, to counter school shootings specifically, he called for every school to have a single point of entry staffed by 'multiple armed police officers.'
Cruz also slammed the media, telling the crowd of NRA members, 'The media blames you, the millions of members of the NRA, for these crimes.'
Trump calls for arming teachers
Former President Trump began his remarks by reading the name of each of the people killed in Uvalde, with the recorded toll of a bell following each name.
He then turned to attack political leaders who said that the massacre in Uvalde ought to spur action to restrict access to guns, saying, 'sadly, before the sun had even set on the horrible day of tragedy we witnessed a now familiar parade of cynical politicians seeking to exploit the tears of sobbing families to increase their own power and take away our constitutional rights.'
In a speech that lasted about 50 minutes, Trump hit on many of the same ideas as the speakers who preceded him, and sometimes drifted away from gun-related topics into broader political commentary.
But, more than any of the other speakers on Friday, he advocated the arming of American teachers.
As part of broader security plans, he said, 'It's time to finally allow highly trained teachers to safely and discreetly' carry weapons in school. 'Let them do that. It would be so much better and so much more effective, even from a cost standpoint.'
'We will leave you behind'
Outside the venue, a large and vocal crowd gathered to protest the NRA's presence.
Beto O'Rourke, a former Texas congressman who is challenging Abbott in the next election for governor, delivered a passionate address.
O'Rourke sought to make a distinction between the NRA's leadership and its rank-and-file members, saying to the latter, 'You are not our enemies; we are not yours.'
But toward the organization's executives, his tone was different.
'To the leadership of the NRA and to those politicians that you have purchased, to those men and women in positions of power who care more about your power than using that power to save the lives of those you are supposed to serve, if you have done anything good it is the fact that you have brought us here together and that we are committing ourselves to act,' O'Rourke said. 'We will defeat you and we will overcome you and we will leave you behind.'
It was not lost on the organization's critics that when the speakers took the stage in Houston, it was in front of an audience that had been meticulously screened for firearms and any other weapons before entering the hall.
In an appearance on the Truth and Consequences podcast hours before the event, Shannon Watts, founder of the gun control activist group Moms Demand Action, said:
'Let's keep in mind, it's not just the annual meeting,' she said. 'It's a huge gun sale. So, in the wake of this horrific tragedy in Texas, they are selling guns in Houston. And when the leaders speak every single year, it's in a gun-free zone because they're afraid of being shot.'