NRA convention kicks off in Texas just days after elementary school shooting

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(HOUSTON) — The National Rifle Association is forging ahead with its annual meeting in Texas days after 19 young children and two teachers were killed in a mass shooting in the state. A roster of leading Republicans, including Donald Trump, will appear — with protesters set to gather outside.

The weekend-long event starts Friday in Houston, some 270 miles away from the killings Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Multiple demonstrations, organized by interfaith leaders, Moms Demand Action, Indivisible Houston and other gun control advocates, are planned at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where much of the programming will be held.

Scheduled performers including Lee Greenwood said they would not be at the convention in light of the mass shooting. “After thoughtful consideration, we have decided to cancel the appearance out of respect for those mourning the loss of those innocent children and teachers in Uvalde,” Greenwood said in a statement.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner acknowledged the controversy on Wednesday but said, “It’s a contractual arrangement. We simply cannot cancel a conference or convention because we do not agree with the subject matter.”

The NRA plans to “reflect on” the Uvalde massacre and said this week that its “deepest sympathies are with the families and victims involved in this horrific and evil crime.”

“Although an investigation is underway and facts are still emerging, we recognize this was the act of a lone, deranged criminal,” the group said in a statement. “As we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”

Former President Trump is headlining NRA’s leadership forum on Friday. His oldest sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, were slated to speak Thursday night at the related NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum Dinner and Awards Ceremony at the Rice Hotel, also in Houston.

Notably, no firearms will be allowed inside the assembly hall of the convention center on Friday due to President Trump’s appearance. The NRA said the ban is enforced by the Secret Service.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem — all Republicans — were also previously confirmed to speak at Friday’s forum. Abbott declined to say earlier this week whether he would still attend, telling reporters on Wednesday he was “living moment-to-moment right now.” His office said Thursday he would be in Uvalde rather than at the NRA event, instead recording remarks for them by video, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., denounced Abbott as an “absolute fraud” ahead of the NRA event.

With Congress in the early stages of another bipartisan negotiation on possible gun legislation, Abbott stressed this week that he sees the Uvalde shooting as an issue of mental health, not guns — echoing Cruz and other conservative officials in contending gun laws are misplaced.

President Trump, who has embraced gun rights lobbyists despite occasional criticism, said in a Gab social media post earlier this week that “America needs real solutions and real leadership in this moment, not politicians and partisanship. That’s why I will keep my longtime commitment to speak in Texas at the NRA Convention and deliver an important address to America. In the meantime, we all continue to pray for the victims, their families and for our entire nation — we are all in this together!”

The NRA and other gun rights organizations are under renewed scrutiny amid a string of deadly public shootings. Earlier this month, 10 people were killed in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, in what law enforcement described as a racially motivated attack by a suspected white supremacist. Days later, a gunman opened fire at a California church, killing one person and wounding five others; authorities have said that alleged shooter was driven by the political tension between China and Taiwan.

In Uvalde this week, 17 people were injured in addition to the 21 who were fatally shot, authorities said. A motive in that attack is not yet clear.

“When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” President Joe Biden said after the latest tragedy. Democrats have limited options to pursue gun regulations given they don’t have the votes needed to squash a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate. The GOP has consistently said they won’t back sweeping changes to the law, citing their views on the Second Amendment, but some Republican lawmakers support more incremental measures such as expanding background checks.

How influential is the NRA today?

The NRA has been mired in internal strife in recent years. In 2019, it parted ways with its longtime marketing partner, Ackerman McQueen, and lobbyist Chris Cox.

Then last year, the group filed for bankruptcy and tried to reorganize in Texas after New York Attorney General Letitia James raised allegations of financial misconduct. The NRA said then that James had launched an “unconstitutional, premeditated attack” and that it was “committed to good governance.”

A federal judge later dismissed the bankruptcy case, leaving the group to face James’ lawsuit. She is seeking to recoup money that was allegedly misspent as well as ban NRA President Wayne LaPierre and other executives from serving in the leadership of any not-for-profit organization conducting business in the state.

Amid its scandals, the NRA spent $25 million less in the 2020 election cycle than it did in 2016, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit tracking data on campaign finance and lobbying. The gun group spent more than $54 million across federal races during Trump’s first campaign, in 2016, compared to $29 million four years later.

In the 2022 election cycle so far, the NRA has spent less than $10,000 on independent expenditures, OpenSecrets Executive Director Sheila Krumholz told ABC News.

But Adam Winkler, a University of California, Los Angeles, law professor who specializes in gun policy, told ABC News the NRA is still a powerful political force after decades of shaping public attitudes on firearms.

“The NRA has been immensely successful at persuading Americans that if you’re feeling in danger, you should have a gun,” Winkler said.

Gun sales hit a record high of 21 million in 2020, driven in part by first-time purchases. In 2021, sales hit their second highest number at 19 million.

The NRA has also been aided by a large constituency of very strong pro-gun voters who are “fighting for the same vision of gun rights,” Winkler said. Other organizations, such as Gun Owners of America, are stepping in to fill any gaps.

OpenSecrets reported last week that gun rights groups spent a record $15.8 million on lobbying in 2021 — more than five times the amount opposing gun control groups spent. The NRA alone spent $4.4 million on lobbying, up from its $2.2 million the year before.

“The gun rights forces in America are so powerful that another school shooting with an obscene number of deaths will likely not lead to significant new federal gun laws,” Winkler said.

ABC News’ Monica Escobedo contributed to this report.

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