Thousands of people gathered at the downtown convention center here for the controversial annual meeting of the National Rifle Assn. just days after a mass shooting 270 miles west in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 21 people, including 19 children.
The convention, which started Friday, has become embattled. Former President Trump is still scheduled to appear at an afternoon forum, but several other leaders have pulled out, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw. Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that he plans to appear via video from Uvalde. Several musical acts also canceled, including country conservative stalwart Lee Greenwood.
Several progressive groups planned a joint protest Friday afternoon in a park facing the convention center. Abbott’s rival, Democrat gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, was scheduled to appear at the protest after confronting Abbott over gun control at a briefing in Uvalde a day after the mass shooting. Other expected speakers included Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston and the chief executive of the surrounding county, Lina Hidalgo, according to Ashton Woods, founder and lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Houston.
“We’re building space to hold the families of Uvalde, to let them know that we are there for them, that we will stand up for them and we will be fighting for them — even when this is over — to make sure we get commonsense gun reform,” Woods said.
Texas is known for being a conservative, gun-friendly state, but its major cities are run by Democrats, and Democrats’ influence is spreading to the suburbs and rural areas, Woods said. He sees the convention as Republicans pushing back against the power of urban voters who favor gun control.
“Houston is a progressive city. They came to Houston because they know [Democrats] are slowly moving Texas at every level of government,” Woods said. “They’re planning to hold on to Texas and it’s just not happening. This state is moving from deep purple to light blue.”
After the shooting, some Texas Democrats and Republican have said they plan to push “commonsense gun laws,” such as more extensive background checks, red flag laws and increasing the age limit for buying AR-15-style rifles from 18 to 21. But many expect the NRA to mount lobbying efforts to block such measures, as they have in the past.
“As I talk to my Republican colleagues, they’re so scared to do something, it doesn’t make sense to me. Listen to your constituents, not the NRA,” said Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, whose district includes Uvalde, where he has been meeting with victims’ families. “I’m a gun owner. I hunt. For me, this was an issue of an 18-year-old being able to walk into a store days after his 18th birthday and pay thousands of dollars for an AR-15, hundreds of rounds of ammunition. At what point does that not raise a red flag?”
Gutierrez said he plans to push for state gun reforms at the next Texas legislative session in January.
“The biggest failure in this incident was the policymakers in Austin, which is the Republican leaders, the governor and others, who have refused to make commonsense changes in gun laws. Maybe if that kid had not had access to that weapon, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Following the shooting, Abbott and other Texas Republicans have pushed back against gun control rhetoric by Democrats, including President Biden, focusing on mental health instead. Convention attendees and gun rights activists defended the NRA’s decision to move forward with the convention after the mass shooting.
“This isn’t a gun issue. There’s no reason the NRA should not do their convention here,” said C.J. Grisham, president and legal counsel for the gun rights group Open Carry Texas. “This is the perfect time to talk about and defend the right to bear arms as it’s under attack.”