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Caught in a storm of criticism and internal strife, the NRA meets in Houston

CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, speaks during the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits in Houston.
Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, speaks during the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits in Houston.

The National Rifle Association opens its annual conference on Friday in Houston — across the state from Uvalde, Texas, which was the site of the country's second-deadliest school shooting earlier this week.

The group has drawn criticism from gun control advocates for moving ahead with its previously-scheduled convention, its first in three years after multiple pandemic cancellations.

The gathering will hear from former President Donald Trump and other Republican officials, and draw protests, including from the leaders of teachers' unions. Some of its planned speakers and performers have canceled their engagements.

The powerful gun rights advocacy group has offered its condolences to those impacted by Tuesday's shooting, and said in a statement that convention attendees will "reflect on" the attack and "pledge to double our commitment to making schools secure."

But it also denies responsibility for mass shootings in America, and deflects blame from gun ownership in general.

This isn't the first time the NRA has held its convention in the immediate aftermath of a nearby mass shooting: In 1999, it went ahead with its event in Denver just days after the Columbine High School attack (though officials briefly considered canceling it, according to secret recordings obtained by NPR last year).

The group often argues — in the wake of these increasingly common events – that teachers should be armed or that shootings are a by-product of violent video games and other social problems (claims that gun control advocates dispute). And its messaging has remained defiant even in the face of mounting financial and legal troubles.

People attend to look at the displayed gusn and free bullets and casings at the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
/
Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
People attend to look at the displayed gusn and free bullets and casings at the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits.

The organization is in legal jeopardy

The NRA is facing among the most serious threats to its influence in its 150 years of existence, after several investigations revealed corruption at its highest levels.

Most notably, as part of a lawsuit seeking to hold top executives accoutable, New York Attorney General Letitia James has released evidence showing that organization executives — including CEO Wayne LaPierre — spent tens of millions of dollars on private jets, lavish meals and insider deals for people well-connected to senior officials.

The NRA tried to seek the protection of bankruptcy courts, but a federal judge dismissed their efforts last May. Following the controversy and allegations of misconduct some members of the NRA's board revolted, and a faction of the group has called for more transparency and a change in top leadership.

Yet LaPierre remains in charge of the organization, and is scheduled to speak at the conference. And while the NRA may be mired in controversy, it retains its power not just because of money, but because of its ability to quickly mobilize millions of members at critical moments in the political process.

And, with Tuesday's shooting renewing gun control advocates' calls for nationwide policy reform, now appears to be one of those moments.

People listen to the national anthem during a speakers event at the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz were among the speakers.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
/
Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
People listen to the national anthem during a speakers event at the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz were among the speakers.

Some politicians, and many musicians, are skipping the convention

Still, several planned speakers and performers have withdrawn from the event in recent days, with some citing Tuesday's tragedy.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who angered critics by attending a fundraiser on the night of the shooting, is pulling out of a scheduled appearance at the conference to visit Uvalde — but will still address attendees in a prerecorded video message.

Two lawmakers, Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, both Republicans representing Texas, said they won't be speaking or attending because of what their staff described as unrelated scheduling conflicts.

Several of the musical acts slated to perform also have backed out, including Don McLean, Larry Gatlin, Larry Stewart and Lee Greenwood. They were more explicit about the reason behind their change of plans.

"In light of the recent events in Texas, I have decided it would be disrespectful and hurtful for me to perform for the NRA at their convention in Houston this week," McLean told People on Thursday.

Former Restless Heart singer Larry Stewart wrote on Facebook that he was pulling out of his performance to honor the victims and Uvalde community,00 and Lee Greenwood said he was canceling out of respect for those in mourning, adding that he himself was heartbroken as a father.

Gatlin said in a statement that he could not perform at the convention in good conscience, adding that while he agrees with most of the NRA's position, he hopes it will "rethink some of its outdated and ill-thought-out positions."

"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," he said.

Daniel Defense, the manufacturer of the gun used in Tuesday's shooting, said in a statement published by CNN that it would not be attending the NRA convention "due to the horrifying tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, where one of our products was criminally misused." The company has also set its Twitter account to private.

Democratic nominee Beto O'Rourke speaks during a protest outside the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
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Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Democratic nominee Beto O'Rourke speaks during a protest outside the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits.

Gun control advocates are planning protests

A rally against gun violence is set for Friday afternoon in a downtown Houston park.

Democratic Beto O'Rourke, who's running for Texas governor, is expected to be at the protest, which he described on social media as "the antidote to despair." O'Rourke has been a vocal proponent of gun control reform, interrupting Gov. Abbott's press conference earlier this week to decry his response.

Other groups planning to attend include Black Lives Matter Houston, Indivisible Houston, Moms Demand Action, FIEL Houston, Texas American Federation of Teachers, Houston Federation of Teachers, March for Our Lives and the Harris County Democratic Party.

The leaders of the nation's two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, also will speak about gun safety in Houston on Friday. Both organizations have rejected Republican leaders' calls to arm teachers.

Becky Pringle and Randi Weingarten said in a statement published by Axios that they will "highlight the NRA's negligence" and discuss how to keep schools safe. They also will be joined by two teachers who survived the Parkland and Sandy Hook shootings.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Men with t-shirts reading "Uvalde strong," in honor of the school shooting, attend a protest outside.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
/
Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Men with t-shirts reading "Uvalde strong," in honor of the school shooting, attend a protest outside.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.