This story was reported by the Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering guns in America.
At the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Friday, National Rifle Association members spent hours in line, waiting to be cleared by the Secret Service to enter the marquee political event of the group’s annual convention. Chairs were distributed along the queue so that attendees, who skewed conspicuously white and old, could get off their feet as they waited to hear from NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and former President Donald Trump.
There were some children waiting, too. One, a blond-haired toddler, played with a plastic key fob shaped as a semi-automatic rifle, which his mother had given him as a distraction. He dropped it to the ground, leading a short, gray-haired man in a Trump hat and American flag shirt to declare in mock surprise, “He’s got a gun!” The boy’s mother laughed. “What’s wrong with kids today!” she said. “But you can’t joke, not with what’s happened.” She handed the fob to the boy, who put it in his mouth to teeth on.
As the line advanced, protesters became visible through a wall of glass that looked across the street, Avenida de las Americas. The man in the Trump hat warned his neighbors to “never trust the federal government” and to be careful about those who—like the protesters—claim to be into peace. “They are the most terrifying people you ever want to meet,” he said. “And you cannot argue with them.”
Nearby, a man wore a shirt that declared: “Alex Jones Was Right!” (Jones fueled the conspiracy theory that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax.)
Once inside the assembly hall, where firearms and other weapons were banned, a series of speakers that included LaPierre, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, and Trump followed a script the gun group has honed following mass shootings—in this instance the killing of 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school three days earlier in Uvalde, Texas, less than 300 miles away. The speakers offered words of mourning, spoke of the shooter’s depravity, and insisted that stricter controls on firearms were an assault on liberty and had no role in preventing such bloodshed.
The solution, they said, is arming teachers with guns, more school guards with guns, and the “hardening” of schools through measures like restricting access to a single door. At the societal level, increased mental health care, more aggressive policing, and tougher incarceration policies are needed, they said in speeches that included distortions of gun and crime statistics.
Though this NRA convention understandably drew considerable media attention, the gathering in Houston was much smaller than in the past. NRA leadership said Monday that 61,000 had shown up. Before the event, the public corporation that oversees the center projected attendance of 55,000. But more than a quarter of the seats in the main hall—which has a seating capacity of 3,600, according to the convention center’s website—were empty Friday while Trump and others spoke. In 2013, the last time the event was in Houston, a then record 86,000 people attended. Over 80,000 showed up for the 2019 convention in Indianapolis, which was the last one held before the pandemic put the event on hiatus.
Houston also saw fewer industry exhibitors than in recent years, and the NRA country concert was called off, too. The headliner, Don McLean, said he “decided it would be disrespectful and hurtful for me to perform” following the massacre in Uvalde.
While the pandemic and the horrific shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, New York, likely played some role in the downsizing of this year’s event, there is no doubt the NRA is reduced. The organization has seen revenue drop in recent years, and legal fights, including one with New York State Attorney General Letitia James, have consumed its cash. The NRA finished 2020 in the black for the first time in five years only through deep cuts. While weakened, the NRA has embedded its creed in the GOP and the cultural right broadly.
Trump, that day’s final speaker, was greeted by chants of “USA! USA!” He began by knocking Texas Republicans who had pulled out of the event citing scheduling conflicts and, in the case of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, reservations about attending in the wake of the shooting. “Unlike some, I didn’t disappoint you by not showing up,” he said. “Gotta show up.” He read the names of the Uvalde victims, each one followed by the tolling of a recorded bell. Trump falsely suggested that “the Biden administration is considering putting U.N. bureaucrats in charge of your Second Amendment rights” and called for getting rid of gun-free zones at schools and elsewhere.
On Saturday morning, the group held its annual members meeting, where internal conflicts played out. It was sparsely attended, according to accounts from those present. A resolution commending LaPierre was approved. One measure supported by a small dissident bloc that sought settlement of the dispute with James did not get a vote. Neither did one that sought LaPierre’s removal.
Throughout the event, NRA members and protesters engaged in dayslong faceoffs in front of the center as state and local police kept watch. Exchanges were venomous, with protesters screaming that attendees had the blood of children on their hands and those on the other side generally—though not always—offering quieter gestures of contempt.
The protesters yelled “murderer!” and “baby killer!” as a man with a cane made his way across the street Saturday. He told me that he could not understand the anger. “I’m 72 years old and have never shot anybody in my life,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, some of these people are just as crazy as the kid who shot those students.” The man, who asked to be identified as Roger, said he had always wanted to attend an NRA convention and had bought first-class tickets to travel from Massachusetts. He said the Uvalde shooting and protesters had sapped much of his enjoyment. “If I’d known it was going to happen,” he said, “I may not have come and waited for next year.” Roger said that his feet were giving him trouble and that he’d decided not to attend the NRA Grand Ole Night of Freedom country concert because he did not want to be out on the street late with protesters around. He did not know that the concert had been canceled. Like others I spoke to, he saw no ground for dialogue with the protesters. “They are acting like a bunch of crying babies,” he said. “I don’t have a good feeling for how this country is going.”
A small crew of Proud Boys, many with their faces covered, stood nearby, shouting down the protesters. Police had separated the groups. A man identified as the crew’s “sergeant at arms” declined to answer questions, saying, “I’m sure there is nothing you don’t already know.”
Inside the center, seminars ranged in topic from gold investing to the sniping tools being used in Ukraine. Several of the seminars were about winning gunfights. One, called “Bulletproof Mind for the Armed Citizen,” focused on “how to prevent PTSD and to be physically and emotionally triumphant after an armed encounter,” according to a convention brochure. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a controversial author of such books as On Killing, led the seminar. He told attendees that a global sleep deprivation crisis was contributing to a rise in psychosis. He encouraged them to get more rest and praised those present who chose “to arm and defend ourselves in these final times.” About two dozen people stuck it out until the end of the four-hour seminar. “Believe in who you are,” Grossman urged before giving a concluding salute. “You are an armed American citizen. And this is as far as the bastards are going!”
On the exhibition floor, where the gun industry displayed its merchandise, reproductions of 19th century revolvers and the latest handguns could be found among the many, many exhibitors specializing in “tactical” guns and gear, whose aesthetics and technical design are inspired by military hardware.
One gun-maker who helped drive the growth of tactical equipment in the civilian market, Daniel Defense, was not present. Though a convention sponsor, the company backed out of the event because days after the Uvalde shooter turned 18, he purchased a Daniel Defense rifle—the same one he would later use in the massacre. Coincidentally, on the shooter’s birthday this year, May 16, Daniel Defense posted on Twitter a photo of a small boy holding one of its AR-15-style models in his lap. “Train up the child in the way he should go,” read the caption, quoting Proverbs, “and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
The Daniel Defense model used in the Uvalde shooting was the DDM4 V7, which an NRA fundraising arm named “Gun of the Year” in 2017—the first time that the gun group had bestowed the distinction on an AR-15-style rifle. “I’m very glad that [Friends of NRA] chose this product to be Gun of the Year,” company founder and CEO Marty Daniel said at the time, “because it finally states that [the AR-15] is a mainstream product, a product everyone should have, and a product everyone should learn to shoot.”
Update, June 2, 2022: This piece was updated to note that the caption on the Daniel Defense ad quotes from the Bible.
For more on how the Uvalde school shooting may affect the gun rights debate in Texas, listen to this episode of What Next.