The National Rifle Association Convention is holding its annual convention in Houston — in the same state where 19 children and two adults were killed when a gunman opened fire at an elementary school on Tuesday.
An estimated 80,000 people are expected to attend the NRA forum over the weekend, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. This week’s conference marks the first time in two years it’s taking place, after the COVID-19 pandemic caused its cancellation. In the wake of the shooting in Uvalde, the conference appeared muted and many of the speakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz and former President Donald Trump, spoke about the shooting and the gunman.
Attendee Doug Moebus noted that “everyone is grieving — it’s not something we take lightly.” A Dallas resident, he said he noticed a more somber tone amid the shooting.
Other attendees — and speakers — said mental health and societal problems were to blame for the shooting, not guns.
“We have a problem — people who are mentally ill are falling through the cracks,” said attendee Steve Speck.
A slew of Texas lawmakers were expected to be there, including Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, although Abbott announced late Thursday that he would no longer be attending in person and would address the convention by a pre-recorded video. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced Friday morning that he, too, would skip the NRA forum in the wake of the Uvalde shooting.
In his pre-recorded remarks, Abbott spoke about the Uvalde shooting. And at his news conference in Uvalde, he said he was “livid” about being “misled” by officials about the response when the shooter entered the building.
Former President Donald Trump still appeared at the convention despite the absences of Abbott, Patrick and other politicians. Without mentioning them by name, Trump said “unlike some others, I didn’t disappoint you by not showing up today.”
After that swipe, Trump read the names of the victims of the Uvalde shooting, which was followed by a gong. He touched on some of the themes pushed earlier by Sen. Ted Cruz — blaming broken families and mental illness. He called for a single point of entry for school security and contended that “gun free zones” at schools make them unsafe.
He called for immunity from lawsuits for police and praised the law enforcement who he said “stopped the Texas shooter.”
Trump brought a man up on stage who had stopped a shooting at a church in White Settlement, Texas, in 2019. Jack Wilson said he “didn’t kill — I took out evil.” Wilson praised Trump, saying “you’re still our president.”
After Wilson’s remarks, Trump returned to talking about his time in office and slamming the Biden administration. He insisted the Second Amendment is “under siege” and darkly predicted that new gun control laws would be the “first step” because they want “total gun confiscation,” although there are no proposed gun control measures that call for this.
Trump claimed that he had “saved” cities such as Minneapolis, Kenosha, Seattle and Chicago during protests and received some of his biggest cheers when he told the crowd, “If I did it again — run for president and win — I would no longer feel obligated to do that way.”
Cruz argued that stricter gun laws won’t stop mass shootings. He focused on societal problems — “chronic isolation,” “broken homes,” “absent fathers” and “social media bullying.”
Two high-profile Republican lawmakers from the state, Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, both backed out of the NRA gathering, too — Cornyn said he had a scheduling conflict and Crenshaw was still out of the country on a trip to Ukraine, his office told Fox News.
Several of the musicians scheduled to perform have also pulled out, including Don McLean and country singer Lee Greenwood. And Daniel Defense, a weapons manufacturer, told CBS News in a statement that they would no longer be attending “due to the horrifying tragedy in Uvalde, Texas where one of our products was criminally misused. We believe this week is not the appropriate time to be promoting our products in Texas at the NRA meeting.”
In the wake of the deadly mass shooting, which happened about 300 miles from Houston, there have been calls nationally – especially among Democrats – for stricter gun control laws. Hours after the shooting, President Joe Biden said, “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?”
A bipartisan group of senators met Thursday and plan to continue working on a consensus gun safety bill through the holiday break, likely focusing on red-flag and yellow-flag laws.
A CBS News poll taken after the Buffalo mass shooting but before the Uvalde massacre showed that a slim majority of Americans want stricter gun control laws, although opinion was split along partisan lines.
There were several protests Friday, including one across the street that started shortly before the doors opened at the convention. The protest, already organized by Black Lives Matter Houston, included a surprise guest Thursday night: Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Abbott for governor. O’Rourke, who supports more gun laws, confronted Abbott earlier this week about the lack of gun legislation in the state, which has seen five high-profile mass shootings in five years. O’Rourke was then kicked out of the press event.
O’Rourke offered a message of unity at Friday’s protest, telling conference attendees “you are not our enemies and we are not yours.” But he reserved his harshest words for NRA leadership and the politicians they have “purchased.”
“We will defeat you and we will overcome you and we will leave you behind,” O’Rourke said.
The NRA donates more than $15 million to political candidates each year, and although that number is reduced from years past, it is still five times more than what gun control groups donate. O’Rourke told CBS News’ Robert Costa he didn’t think there could be a compromise with the NRA: “I don’t know if you’ll ever find common ground with someone who operates like that. They prioritize power and profits over lives. “
Gun legislation has long stalled in Texas, and although Abbott vowed after the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School to look into ways to improve public safety. But the Texas Legislature actually loosened gun restrictions in the 2021 special session, a bill that was signed by Abbott.
Texas Democrats in the state senate on Saturday called for a special session to address gun legislation. Protesters said Friday they hoped now would be time for change in the state.
“We have a problem,” said Aramis Miller, who was at the protest. “I think maybe, just maybe, we can make some change.”
Turner, a Democrat, said Wednesday that he “simply cannot cancel the convention,” since the NRA had all its permits in order.
“The convention has been on the books for more than two years,” the Houston mayor said, according to CBS Houston affiliate KHOU. “It’s a contractual arrangement. We simply cannot cancel a conference or convention because we do not agree with the subject matter.”
National and local authorities are still investigating the details of Tuesday’s shooting. Authorities said the 18-year-old gunman purchased the weapons legally after his 18th birthday, shortly before the shooting. In Texas, rifles such as AR-15s and long guns can be purchased by 18-year-olds.