HOUSTON — Outside a National Rifle Association convention beset by high-profile cancellations after a massacre at a Texas elementary school, protesters massed on Friday to demand gun control and answers from authorities.
Former president Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), among other speakers, broadly rejected proposals for new restrictions and called instead for more school security or mental health screenings, while issuing dark warnings of alleged Democratic plots to take weapons.
“We all know they want total gun confiscation, know that this would be a first step,” Trump told the crowd in an auditorium about 300 miles from the site of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Tex. “Once they get the first step, they’ll take the second step, the third, the fourth, and then you’ll have a whole different look at the Second Amendment.”
The fiery speeches contrasted with a moment of silence held at the convention for the 19 children and two teachers killed on Tuesday in a mass killing that has again raised calls from Democrats and advocates for new gun safety measures. Even more forcefully than in the wake of the elementary school killings at Sandy Hook nearly a decade ago, though, the NRA sent a clear message that the lobby and its backers do not view new restrictions as negotiable.
The GOP speakers shifted blame for the latest tragedy from the availability of high-powered weapons to an array of other culprits, such as declining church attendance, physical and social media bullying, weak families, violent video games, opioid abuse, lack of mental health services, multiple points of entry at schools and unlocked doors.
The speakers also pivoted from condemning the evil of the Uvalde school shooter to vilifying “elites,” the media, Democrats, and “communist Marxists,” eliciting cheers from the undercapacity but vocal crowd.
“The elites who dominate our culture tell us that firearms lie at the root of the problem,” Cruz said. “It’s far easier to slander one’s political adversaries and to demand that responsible citizens forfeit their constitutional rights than it is to examine the cultural sickness, giving birth to unspeakable acts of evil.”
Abbott, appearing in a recorded message because he was at the same time holding a news conference in Uvalde that included criticizing the law enforcement failures, rejected out-of-hand new gun restrictions.
“Just as laws didn't stop the killer, we will not let his evil acts stop us from uniting the community that he tried to destroy,” Abbott said in the video.
In the decade since Sandy Hook, the NRA has increasingly allied itself with the GOP, broadening its focus from gun rights to include other conservative culture war issues and grievances, and betting big on Trump in the 2016 campaign. The NRA used Friday’s event to project strength after years of turmoil as the organization fights a lawsuit by the New York attorney general alleging executives misspent funds.
The NRA pressed ahead with the program despite calls to move, postpone or cancel it out of respect to the Uvalde victims. A growing crowd of protesters in the park across the street shouted “Shame” at attendees as they entered the convention center. In an interview before the speeches, NRA board member David A. Keene said the organization did not consider modifying the program because it would inconvenience the thousands of people who made plans to attend.
Other board members were more pointed in their response to critics. “If we backed away every time there was controversy, we wouldn’t be worthy of anybody’s support,” said Robert L. Barr Jr., a former congressman from Georgia.
Trump acknowledged the blowback with a swipe at the speakers who backed out, a list that included Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R). “Unlike some, I didn’t disappoint you by not showing up,” he said.
Trump and Cruz pushed for hardening school buildings, with Trump calling for the elimination of gun-free school zones and Cruz saying schools should have a single door guarded by armed police or trained military veterans — a plan that would appear likely to run afoul of fire safety laws requiring more than one exit in buildings. Cruz also called for bulletproof doors and locking classroom doors.
“As the age-old saying goes, the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Trump said, quoting NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre’s remark almost a decade ago in the aftermath of the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
On Friday, LaPierre emphasized the NRA’s efforts to train schools and local authorities and advocated for more security funding — despite the growing questions about whether law enforcement officers in Uvalde acted quickly enough to confront or stop the mass killing there.
“Restricting the fundamental human right of law-abiding Americans to defend themselves is not the answer,” LaPierre said. “We, the NRA, will never, ever stop fighting for the right of the innocent and the law-abiding to defend themselves against the evil criminal element that plagues our society because we know there can be no freedom, no security, no safety without the right of the law-abiding to bear arms for self-defense.”
Trump also criticized federal aid to Ukraine, saying that if the United States could afford that and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan then the government should build more hardened schools. The Ukraine line drew cheers from a crowd that roused him out of reading the remarks in a flat affect. Later in his speech, Trump strayed from gun rights to rehearse his standard rally material, with frequent shout-outs from the audience, including the chanting of a phrase that is code for a profane expression against President Biden and, when Trump discussed the 2020 election, “We won!”
Trump went so far as to belittle the social justice demonstrations that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “The very same Democrat politicians who stoked riots over a single police-involved killing two years ago are numb to the mounting death toll of their own radical policies,” Trump said. Cruz called Chicago a “murder hellhole,” to applause from the audience.
Trump said that as president, he showed too much leniency to Democratic politicians running major cities and that he would act differently if he were elected again.
“If I ever do it again, namely run for president and win, I would no longer feel obligated to do it that way,” Trump said. “I would crack down on violent crime like never before.”
Trump called up a Fort Worth man named Jack Wilson who killed a shooter at his church in 2020. “You’re still my president,” Wilson told Trump, as people in the audience stood and cheered.