By Eric Bradner and Jeff Zeleny, CNN
Former President Donald Trump and other GOP leaders rejected efforts to overhaul gun laws and mocked Democrats and activists calling for change Friday at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention.
The gathering this weekend in Houston is taking place 280 miles east of the South Texas town of Uvalde, where 19 children and two adults were killed by a gunman at an elementary school Tuesday.
Hours before top Republicans were scheduled to speak in Houston, law enforcement officials in Uvalde acknowledged that they had waited too long to breach the classroom where a gunman was shooting children and teachers.
But those mistakes, and their ramifications on proposals to place more armed police and teachers in schools, went unmentioned in speeches by Trump and other Republicans.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott canceled his planned appearance at the NRA convention and instead pre-recorded a video in which he was dismissive of calls for gun reforms.
“Remember this: There are thousands of laws on the books across the country that limit the owning or using of firearms, laws that have not stopped madmen from carrying out evil acts on innocent people in peaceful communities,” he said.
Trump in his speech called for a series of measures that largely mirrored what other Republicans had proposed throughout the day: Schools with a single entryway, with armed guards stationed there, and exit-only fire escapes. He also said some teachers should be allowed to carry firearms.
“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the former President said — repeating a refrain that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had used onstage less than an hour earlier.
But Trump also nodded to the political reality that gun rights advocates represent a core constituency for Republicans, and for the former President in particular. “You are the backbone of our movement,” he said Friday.
Cruz, meanwhile, blamed a “cultural sickness,” including fatherless children and video games, for mass shootings. He said schools should have a single entry point defended by multiple armed guards.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem attacked advocates of gun safety legislation.
“Let me tell you the truth about the enemies of the Second Amendment. They are schooled in the ways of Marx and Lenin,” she said.
And NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said that “if we as a nation were capable of legislating evil out of the hearts and minds of criminals who commit these heinous acts, we would have done it a long time ago.”
The tale of two Americas
In the nation’s bitter divide over guns, the tale of two Americas was on vivid display in downtown Houston, as protesters waved signs and shouted at NRA members as they walked into the George R. Brown Convention Center for their meeting and exposition.
“NRA, go away,” a woman said over and over, her voice echoing through a bullhorn beneath the punishing sunshine.
“You go away,” another woman yelled back as she crossed the street to enter the event.
It’s been three years since the NRA last gathered for its convention — the last two years were called off because of the Covid-19 pandemic — and thousands of people descended on Houston to show their support for the Second Amendment and to go shopping in the expansive exposition hall.
In celebration of its 150th anniversary, the NRA went big for its Texas meeting, with a sign outside the convention center promising “14 acres of guns and gear.”
Guns of all shapes and sizes were on display, from antique pistols to automatic weapons, with some decorated in camouflage and others in American flags. Hundreds of vendors set up booths for the weekend, selling ammunition and a variety of gun paraphernalia.
After the Columbine massacre in 1999, the NRA canceled its exposition during its meeting in nearby Denver. But this year, despite Uvalde being less than 300 miles away, the exposition went on as planned — except for Daniel Defense, the company that manufactured the weapon used in the shooting at Robb Elementary School.
“We believe this week is not the appropriate time to be promoting our products in Texas at the NRA meeting,” Steve Reed, vice president of marketing for Daniel Defense, told CNN.
A popcorn cart, a baked potato stand and several tables and chairs were hastily set up in the space originally reserved for Daniel Defense, a Georgia company.
In the wake of the shooting, that was the only noticeable alteration to the sprawling exposition hall. But prominent country singers Lee Greenwood and Larry Gatlin were among the performers who also canceled their appearances.
“I didn’t think it was a good time to go down to Houston and have a party with them digging 21 fresh graves in the valley of my precious, beloved Texas,” Gatlin, of the famed Gatlin Brothers, told CNN.
Conversations with several members of the NRA — some from Texas and others who were visiting Houston for the weekend event — found respectful expressions of sympathy at the loss of life at the Uvalde school. Yet person after person placed blame on mental health problems and other issues — not guns — for the horrific shooting.
“It’s not that guns are evil. Guns are tools that can be used for good or evil — just like cars,” said Dr. Elizabeth Tom, who traveled to Texas from Elko, Nevada, for the convention. “Many more people are killed in car wrecks, but nobody says that you have to have a waiting period in order to buy one or that all cars are evil because some people run over other people with them.”
An NRA member for about three decades, Tom said she did not believe that more gun restrictions would prevent future massacres.
“I know this may be somewhat controversial and I certainly don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but if any of those teachers had been armed, this might have ended a lot quicker,” Tom told CNN. “We already have gun restrictions. Shooting someone is already illegal, so I’m not really sure what more they want.”
Not all attendees shared that view.
Max Shirley, an NRA member from Round Rock, Texas, said he would support “sensible measures” to stop the cycle of school shootings. He said he believed the age limit to buy an automatic weapon should be raised to 21 and the clip size for ammunition should be lowered.
“If the person you’re defending yourself against is not down or the threat is not diminished after 10 rounds or 10 shots, then you’ve got bigger problems,” Shirley told CNN. “Or you’re a bad shot.”
‘I can’t believe they’re still here after Uvalde’
Outside the convention center, thousands gathered for a protest organized by gun control advocacy groups Moms Demand Action and March for Our Lives, as well as local teachers’ unions, Black Lives Matter chapters and the Harris County Democratic Party.
Many there said they were furious that the NRA would go on with its convention after a school shooting in the state just days earlier.
“I can’t believe that they’re still here after Uvalde,” said Anastacia Castro, a 20-year-old college student whose brother was shot and killed last year. “They insult victims of gun violence like me by being here in the city.”
Milan Narayan, a 17-year-old student who leads a Students Demand Action chapter at his high school, where he said an accidental shooting took place last year, said he understood that the NRA’s convention had been booked well in advance.
“But you can’t be tone deaf. I mean, kids have died,” he said.
The signs protesters held demonstrated the rawness of the emotion some of them said they felt after the Uvalde shooting, which took place in a state that has seen a series of mass shootings in recent years — including 26 people killed at a church in Sutherland Springs in 2017 and 22 killed at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019 by a gunman targeting Latinos.
One sign said, “I will vote you out because those 10-year-olds will never get to.” Another said, “My little sister is afraid to go to school.”
The focus of those protesting in Houston on Friday, in speeches and interviews, was on guns. Many argued for a ban on the sale of assault rifles.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat who is challenging Abbott in November’s midterm elections and has called for “red flag” laws and a ban on the sale of AR-15s, sought to extend an olive branch to NRA members.
“To those who are attending the NRA convention across the street: You are not our enemies. We are not yours. We extend our hand, open and unarmed, in a gesture of peace and fellowship, to welcome you to join us to make sure this no longer happens in this country,” O’Rourke said during a speech at the protest, about a football field away from the convention center. O’Rourke made headlines the day after the shooting when he confronted Abbott and other officials during a news conference in Uvalde.
“But the time for you to respond and join us is now. We cannot wait any longer for you,” he said. “Those who will be the victims of the next mass shooting unless we act are counting on us at this moment. So please join us now or be left behind.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional details.
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CNN’s David Wright contributed to this report.