Gun owners, protesters and Donald Trump converge on Houston for NRA event

The massive convention of gun owners is taking place days after 19 students and two teachers were shot to death in a Texas elementary school.

Visitors at the annual NRA meeting Friday in Houston. Allison Dinner for NBC News
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Thousands of gun owners, throngs of protesters and some prominent Republican politicians gathered in Houston for the National Rifle Association's annual meeting Friday, just three days after 19 children and two adults were shot to death at an elementary school in South Texas.

The speaking portion of the NRA convention got underway Friday afternoon with speeches from Wayne LaPierre, the group’s powerful executive vice president, and recorded video remarks from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who decided to skip the gathering at the last minute. It was capped off by former President Donald Trump, who started his remarks by saying, "Unlike some, I didn’t disappoint you by not showing up."

The event, which is being held in the George R. Brown Convention Center and will last through Sunday, "will showcase over 14 acres of the latest guns and gear," the NRA said on its website, describing it as "a freedom-filled weekend for the entire family."

About 70,000 people are expected to attend. Admission is free for NRA members and their immediate family members, including children under 18, the group's site says.

Braxton Sorrell, 11, at the annual NRA meeting Friday in Houston. Allison Dinner for NBC News

Some Democratic politicians and gun safety advocates had urged the gun group to postpone or move the event, which is taking place about 270 miles from the site of Tuesday's shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, given the timing.

Others speaking Friday included South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Cruz told the crowd, "The media wanted us to stay away, but you are not the cause of this evil."

He called for "love" and "unity" to help those affected by the bloodshed, before slamming the "elites who dominate our culture" and "tell us that firearms are the problem." Cruz said the real issue is that our "culture is failing," with "absent fathers" and violent online games. He proposed more security for schools, including bulletproof doors and a single point of entry for every school, guarded by "multiple armed police officers."

"What stops armed bad guys is armed good guys," Cruz said.

Trump also called for "hardening" schools with a single entry point, and said no one should be be able to get in until they've been "checked, scanned, screened and fully approved." He also called for concealed carry guns for "highly trained teachers."

"Schools should be the single hardest target in our country," Trump said.

Abbott, who had been scheduled to address the convention, decided instead to make a return visit to Uvalde. He recorded a brief welcoming message for the convention and spoke about the mass shooting, saying it left him "heartbroken." But he also suggested gun control measures would not have made a difference because "thousands" of existing laws on the books "have not stopped madmen from carrying out evil acts."

Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic nominee for Texas governor, had pressed Abbott to withdraw from the event and urge the NRA to hold it elsewhere. "Governor Abbott, if you have any decency, you will immediately withdraw from this weekend’s NRA convention and urge them to hold it anywhere but Texas," O'Rourke tweeted Wednesday.

In a statement shared to Twitter Friday, the state's lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, also announced his decision to withdraw from speaking at the convention.

"After prayerful consideration and discussion with NRA officials, I have decided not to speak at the NRA breakfast this morning," he said. "While a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and an NRA member, I would not want my appearance today to bring any additional pain or grief to the families and all those who are suffering in Uvalde."

The first of the day's speakers was the NRA's LaPierre, whom the New York attorney general is trying to oust, alleging he used the organization as his "personal piggy bank." LaPierre contends the suit is political and should be thrown out.

LaPierre told Friday's audience “every NRA member is in mourning” because of the Uvalde shooting, which he said was the work of a “criminal monster.” He said he agreed with President Joe Biden that "there are certain things we can do" to stop future attacks, but disagreed that those measures should have anything to do with guns.

“We must protect our schools,” LaPierre said, and “fully fund our police departments” and “fully fund our nation’s broken mental health system.”

A visitor checks out a rifle at the annual meeting Friday. Allison Dinner for NBC News

A number of activist groups, including Black Lives Matter: Houston and the gun safety group Moms Demand Action, held protests outside the convention center Friday. "We don’t want, need, or accept that the NRA is planning to come here in Friday," tweeted one of the organizations, FIEL Houston, an immigrants rights group.

One group of demonstrators included several children who wore pictures of the slain Uvalde students around their necks. One held a sign that read, "Am I next?"

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, noted at a City Council meeting this week that there had been calls for him to cancel the convention after the shooting, which he said was not feasible.

"It is a contractual arrangement, and we simply cannot cancel a conference or a convention because we may not agree with the subject matter,” Turner said. He said the "greater issue is why are elected officials going to the NRA to speak."

"What message does that send?" he asked, adding, "You can't be praying and sending condolences one day and then going and championing guns on the next."

Trump said in a statement this week that he would keep his “longtime commitment” to speak because the country needs “real solutions and real leadership in this moment.”

Cruz told local CBS affiliate DFW that he decided to attend because it’s a difficult time for the NRA. “I’m going to be there because what Democrats and the press try to do in the wake of every mass shooting is they try to demonize law-abiding gun owners, try to demonize the NRA. I’ll tell you what the NRA does, it stands up for your rights,” Cruz said.

Two Texas Republicans who had been scheduled to speak, Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, said they were unable to attend because of scheduling conflicts unrelated to the shooting.

"American Pie" singer Don McLean, who had been scheduled to perform at the convention's "Grand Ole Night of Freedom" concert Saturday, announced this week he had canceled. "I have decided it would be disrespectful and hurtful for me to perform for the NRA at their convention in Houston," he said in a statement to the Portland Press Herald of Maine. "I’m sure all the folks planning to attend this event are shocked and sickened by these events as well. After all, we are all Americans. I share the sorrow for this terrible, cruel loss with the rest of the nation.”

A woman grips a pistol at the annual meeting Friday. Allison Dinner for NBC News

Country singers Larry Gatlin and Larry Stewart announced Thursday that they were dropping out, as well.

“While I agree with most of the positions held by the NRA, I have come to believe that, while background checks would not stop every madman with a gun, it is at the very least a step in the right direction toward trying to prevent the kind of tragedy we saw this week in Uvalde — in my beloved, weeping TEXAS," Gatlin said in a statement.

The NRA said in a statement that the shooting in Uvalde "was the act of a lone, deranged criminal."

"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," it said.

While the NRA has advocated for more "good guys with guns" as the best way to stop mass shooters, guns are banned in the convention center's assembly hall Friday because of Trump's presence. The NRA said that according to the Secret Service magnetometers will be on-site and that “firearms, firearm accessories, knives, and other items WILL NOT BE PERMITTED in the General Assembly Hall.”