NRA begins annual convention in Texas despite protests in wake of school shooting

Americans are thoroughly divided over gun laws and the NRA convention, ITV News reporter Robert Moore reports

The United States' biggest gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), pressed ahead with its annual convention in Texas on Friday while protesters shouted outside, in the wake of a mass school shooting that killed 21, including 19 children.

Former President Donald Trump and other leading Republicans are scheduled to address the three-day event, which is happening in the same state as the tragic shooting in Uvalde.

Leaders of the gun rights group are expected to "reflect on" - and deflect any blame for - the tragedy.

But hundreds of protesters angry about gun violence demonstrated outside the event, including some holding crosses with photos of the shooting victims.

Some protesters held crosses with photos of the shooting victims. Credit: AP

With the protesters, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Texas governor 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,” Mr 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."

Inside the convention hall, thousands of people walked around, stopping at booths that featured displays of handguns, rifles, AR-style firearms, knives, clothing and gun racks. Outside, police set up metal barriers at a large park where hundreds of protesters and counterprotesters gathered in front of the downtown convention centre.

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

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Some scheduled speakers and performers have backed out, including two Texas politicians and American Pie singer Don McLean, who said “it would be disrespectful” to go ahead with his performance in the aftermath of the country’s latest mass shooting.

There is precedent for the group to gather amid local mourning and controversy. The NRA 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.”

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NRA board member Phil Journey said the focus should be on better mental health care and trying to prevent gun violence. He said he would not support banning or limiting access to firearms.

NRA souvenirs for sale at the conference included T-shirts with the slogan: “Suns Out Guns Out.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on 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.”

Activists join Senate Democrats outside the Capitol to demand action on gun control legislation. Credit: AP

“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.”

Shannon Watts, the founder of gun-control group Moms Demand Action, said she was not surprised the NRA is not cancelling 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.

After the Uvalde shooting, Gun Owners of America, which bills itself as tougher than the NRA, said policymakers should discuss "real solutions" like arming teachers.