Three days after the third deadliest mass shooting in modern Texas history, the National Rifle Association is holding its annual conference in Houston on Friday, less than 300 miles from Uvalde.
The NRA’s decision to move forward with their annual meet-up has already received criticism from many Democrats and gun safety advocates. It also serves as a stark illustration of the contentious political lines drawn over gun rights and gun control in a state with some of the least restrictive laws around firearms in the country.
Tuesday’s shooting at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School left 19 children and two adults dead. The suspect was killed by law enforcement agents. An additional 17 people were injured.
“It always makes us uncomfortable to have these things,” said Cesar Espinosa, the executive director of the Houston-based nonprofit Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha (FIEL). “But on the heels of this mass tragedy, it definitely adds insult to injury.”
FIEL is part of a coalition of local and statewide organizations planning to protest outside the George R. Brown Convention Center, the venue for the NRA’s annual meeting.
After Tuesday’s shooting, some prominent conservatives canceled their scheduled appearances at the conference, including Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor was scheduled to speak but backed out of that appearance late Thursday and will instead travel to Uvalde, according to his office. The governor sent a pre-recorded video to the convention Friday.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was scheduled to appear at the NRA breakfast Friday morning, announced his cancellation just hours before the convention kicked off. In a statement, Patrick said he made the decision after talking to NRA officials, and that it was important to instead focus on the people most impacted by Tuesday’s shooting.
“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 suffering in Uvalde,” Patrick said.
Sen. John Cornyn, pulled out of the event after the shooting, citing scheduling conflicts, but Sen. Ted Cruz is still scheduled to speak.
The NRA coming to Texas for its annual conference isn’t surprising — their 2018 meetup was in Dallas, and some of the state’s top politicians have an A+ rating from the organization.
According to the NRA’s website, an A+ rating is given to “a legislator with not only an excellent voting record on all critical NRA issues, but who has also made a vigorous effort to promote and defend the Second Amendment.”
Additionally, the group has financially backed many campaigns for Texas politicians.
According to Axios, at $442,000, Cruz has received the most money from the NRA. Meanwhile, Cornyn’s campaign has received the NRA’s third-largest lifetime contribution amount, at $340,000.
Calls for gun reform
Hours after the shooting, numerous Democratic lawmakers and gun safety advocates said gun reform was critically important.
On Wednesday, Beto O’Rourke — the former U.S. congressman from El Paso who’s challenging Abbott in this November’s gubernatorial election — interrupted the governor’s news conference in Uvalde, blaming Abbott for the elementary school shooting.
After being escorted out of the press conference, O’Rourke told reporters the governor has ignored solutions that could have prevented the shooting, like banning the sales of AR-15 style rifles and safe gun storage laws.
“Those are … solutions that have been brought up by the people of Texas, each one of those has broad bipartisan support,” O’Rourke said. “Right now, we could get that done — if we had a governor who cared more about the people of Texas than he does his own political career or his fealty to the NRA.”
O’Rourke, who is scheduled to be at Friday’s protest, also referenced so-called “red flag” laws as a solution. That’s a measure that would allow judges to order the seizure of firearms from a person deemed an immediate threat.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, has been one of the state’s most prominent figures against red flag laws.
Liz Hanks, who leads the Texas chapter of gun-control group Moms Demand Action, told The Texas Newsroom that Texans treat the topic of guns differently than other states.
“It’s a totally different beast,” Hanks said. “Most people have guns, and you just accept that as the status quo.”
While Hanks said people should be able to carry firearms in a safe manner, she’s worried about potential future actions from the Texas Legislature. For instance, she’s against extending the state’s permitless carry law — which eliminated the requirement to have a permit when carrying a handgun — to 18-year-olds.
The current law, signed by Abbott last year, allowed most Texans over 21 to carry a handgun without a license.
According to polling, the state’s recent actions loosening restrictions around firearms aren’t in line with what most Texans want.
A February poll from the Texas Politics Project showed 43% of voters surveyed said they wanted stricter gun laws. Only 16% said they wanted less strict laws.
Despite this week’s shooting in Uvalde, it’s unlikely the Republican majority in Texas will pass legislation to regulate the use of guns.
In a Wednesday interview with Newsmax, a conservative news outlet, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said stricter laws would have not prevented the shooting in Uvalde.
“We already have laws against killing people and this guy apparently didn’t care what the law was,” Paxton said. “Having a gun law that told him not to have a gun I don’t think would have stopped any of this.”
Paxton accused the Democrats of having a political agenda that seeks to limit gun access.
Additionally, in a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Abbott dismissed calls for gun reform.
“The ability of an 18-year-old to buy a long gun has been in place in the state of Texas for more than 60 years,” Abbott said. “Why is it that for the majority of these 60 years we did not have school shootings? And why is it that we do now?”
Abbott said he didn’t have the answer to that, but claimed he has talked to experts who said “mental health” might be the reason why.
However, according to Abbott, the Uvalde shooter didn’t have a record of mental health issues.
Other Republicans have proposed arming teachers, or adding law enforcement to the schools.
Hanks, with Moms Demand Action, said the reaction and proposals from Republicans she’s heard this week may make it seem like there’s no appetite for change — but that might not be the case.
“That’s what they want us to think,” Hanks said. “And once we do start thinking that way, they’ve won the battle.”
Organizers prepare to protest
Several advocacy groups and organizers will be gathering outside of the NRA convention on Friday, including FIEL, Black Lives Matter Houston, Indivisible Houston and the Harris County Democratic Party.
As of Thursday evening, several petitions have been created demanding the event’s cancellation, including one that garnered more than 233,000 signatures.
These demands were echoed by Ashton Woods, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Houston, who directed the demand towards the city.
“These are privileged people who think that what they do is noble and it is far from noble,” Woods said. “If the city of Houston can find a billion dollars to give to HPD for over-policing, they can find money to pay settlements with the NRA.”
This line of thinking was acknowledged by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner during a city council meeting on Wednesday, although he declined to cancel the meeting. Instead, Turner questioned why several officials were attending the event to begin with.
“Canceling the convention would leave the city subject to a number of legal issues,” Turner said. “The greater question is why are elected officials speaking there, and what message does that send? You can’t pray and send condolences on one day and go and champion guns on the next.”
The demonstrations scheduled for Friday begin as early as 10 a.m. near the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Ashton Woods with Black Lives Matter Houston said it was important for their voices to be heard, especially during an election year.
“What type of America can we have if we’re not protecting the people who are gonna be our future? We have to cultivate people and that starts with protecting our children in schools,” Woods said.