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As host to NRA meeting, Dallas becomes epicenter of the nation’s gun debate

People walk by a National Rifle Association banner inside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on Thursday in Dallas, ahead of the NRA annual meeting, which opened Friday.
People walk by a National Rifle Association banner inside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on Thursday in Dallas, ahead of the NRA annual meeting, which opened Friday. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

DALLAS — For Michele Rivera, attending the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting this year has additional significance: It is a way to loudly and proudly affirm that she is pro-gun at a time when she feels as though her views are under attack.

“I will be here at the NRA meetings, and I will show my support in that way,” said Rivera, who traveled here from New Jersey. “I feel like we, right now, are the minority. I’m feeling as though everyone hates us gun owners and people like me, but they don’t really know people like me.”

The NRA is holding its 147th annual meeting here, making Dallas — which just buried a police officer who was shot and killed last month — the epicenter of the nation’s roiling debate on guns.

The meeting comes in the wake of a spate of mass shootings, including the one at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed, that set off a wave of anti-gun activism led by students who are directly challenging the NRA.

Aggressively pushing back against gun-control advocates and stoking controversy is part and parcel of the NRA as an organization. But this year some members said they feel more under attack than ever by gun-control advocates, politicians and the news media, and they are more galvanized to support the NRA and protect their Second Amendment rights.

“They’ve made this all about demonizing the NRA and our members, and our members have never really been more energized than they are now,” said Jennifer Baker, the director of public affairs for the NRA-Institute for Legislative Action. “We’re not going to back down.”

The group went on the offensive after the shooting in Parkland, calling for armed security in schools and assailing liberal politicians and the news media. At the same time, the NRA has faced unprecedented pressure from corporations, with Delta Air Lines, Best Western and MetLife doing away with discounts and perks for its members after the Parkland shooting.

It also has faced rare pushback in the Republican political arena, where the NRA holds enormous sway through its lobbying and campaign support efforts: The NRA spent more than $30 million supporting President Trump’s election campaign alone. Two Republican governors endorsed by the NRA, Rick Scott of Florida and Phil Scott of Vermont, signed bipartisan gun-control legislation this year. At one point, even Trump flirted with the idea of some type of gun control, but he backed off after pressure from the NRA and lawmakers.

The president is scheduled to deliver a speech at the NRA convention at 2 p.m. Eastern time Friday. It will be the fourth year that Trump, who once praised calls for gun control, addresses the organization.

At the NRA, Trump completes his rapid transformation into a pro-gun voice

Members and others expect the organization to redouble its efforts, particularly in the political arena ahead of November’s midterm elections. The NRA’s political victory fund broke a 15-year fundraising record in March, gathering nearly $2.4 million.

Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who is president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, a rival gun-rights group, says guns were not a burning political issue before the Parkland shooting, and many didn’t expect them to be since Republicans are in full control of the government in Washington.

After years of spikes in gun sales during the Obama presidency, there was a glut of firearms, with sales and the number of federal background checks performed dropping after Trump’s election.

But now that there is talk of banning the sales of certain types of guns, like the AR-15 rifle, gun-rights advocates are concerned that there could be a slippery slope and multiple types of weapons could be banned, Feldman said.

The NRA will remind members of this, he said, and will work to get them to the polls in November.

“They are going to put on a political effort this year second to none,” Feldman said. “The guns-rights community for years has been so successful because gun owners care about their guns.”

That community includes people like Rivera, who joined the NRA about seven years ago.

She said she gets angry when people connect the NRA and its members to acts of violence. She is appalled by school shootings and concerned about school safety, believing that there should be more security in place. But she said that the killers have nothing to do with the NRA and the blame shouldn’t be placed on the organization.

Rivera said she spent hours on social media in the wake of Parkland debating with others, which left her so angry that she could not sleep. She stopped going on to the Internet and decided to show her support by coming here.

“Not everybody agrees with us,” she said. “It’s nice to be with a group of people who really get all of us.”

Those who don’t agree with Rivera and the attendees will be outside the convention center protesting. Dallas police said “numerous” protests, both for gun control and gun rights, are expected in public areas around the convention center, and a large permitted rally is scheduled for Saturday morning at Dallas City Hall.

The Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund is launching ads that it says highlight alleged ties between the NRA and Russia. The ads include digital billboards visible from the highway that leads to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and truck ads that will circle the convention center.

Alice Tripp, legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association, has attended NRA meetings for more than 20 years. She said that protests and rallies are nothing new. In 1999, the association held its annual meeting in Denver weeks after 15 people were killed in a shooting at Columbine High School in suburban Littleton, Colo.; thousands protested.

Tripp said it is understandable that students are upset about Parkland.

“God bless them,” she said. “It’s their First Amendment right. You’ve got to have an opinion. I was a hippie; I know.”

But, she said she believes that there are enough gun laws on the books, and they need to be enforced.

“Laws must be prosecuted. People must be convicted. There’s got to be an accountability,” she said. “And to be mad at NRA or mad at NRA members or mad at Republicans instead of being mad at criminals is ridiculous.”

With 80,000 people attending, Tripp said members are in no way a monolith that agrees on everything, be it how best to protect schools or what they plan to do at the meeting. Some attend for the trade show, while others come to hear lectures about Second Amendment law or firearms safety. Some come to be overtly political.

Ted Tarver, a Navy veteran who teaches concealed-carry safety classes and courses to train armed employees of schools, said he is interested in seeing what products are on the market concerning school safety.

“Keeping the schools safe is going to be a big topic this year,” he said. “I think most everybody wants to keep our children safe. It’s the how to and what’s the most effective means of doing it.”

The meeting is being held in Texas, which has some of the nation’s most permissive gun laws. Conventioneers will be able to carry concealed and open weapons. But no firearms will be allowed in the room where Trump and Vice President Pence will be speaking, per Secret Service rules. Both students from Parkland and NRA supporters have voiced opposition to the prohibition, but for differing reasons: The Parkland students are calling it hypocrisy.

The Lone Star State has also recently seen a mass shooting. In November, a gunman walked into a church in Sutherland Springs, a South Texas community of 600, and killed 26 people. Devin Kelley was chased down by Stephen Willeford, who used his AR-15 to confront Kelley, wounding him twice before Kelley shot himself in the head. In an opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News, Willeford said he is a proud NRA member and is “saddened” to see politicians and others “demonize” the NRA and its members.

“We are good people, and we know that it’s our responsibility to keep our community safe and to look out for each other,” he wrote. “We are the National Rifle Association. We are not the bad guys.”

Dallas is, in many ways, a natural fit for the convention: NRA TV is based here. But it is also a city that is mourning the death of a police officer and still bearing the scars of a shooting that killed five other officers in July 2016.

Officer Rogelio Santander, a three-year police veteran, died last Wednesday, a day after he and his partner were shot at a Home Depot.

“Our wounds have been reopened, so anything about guns is something that we’re sensitive about,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (D) said in an interview.

Rawlings said he believes some gun reform laws should be passed, but that he has met with NRA members and students who will be protesting and welcomes them both to Dallas. Rawlings said he is frustrated that both sides seem to have dug in their heels.

“I don’t mind being an epicenter for debate, but the problem is it’s not a healthy debate,” he said. “All we’re going to have are people protesting and people inside making speeches.”