HOUSTON -- The National Rifle Assn.’s annual convention begins in earnest Friday in Houston, with leaders who have spent the year defending the group in the wake of mass shootings emboldened by the recent defeat of federal gun control legislation and ready to rally around this year’s theme: “Stand and Fight.”
“If you are an NRA member, you deserve to be proud,” Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s chief executive wrote to members last week, saying they “exemplify everything that’s good and right about America.”
On Friday afternoon, LaPierre is scheduled to appear at the convention with a panel of political leaders who have championed gun rights, including former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (who some tea party advocates are hoping will make a run for the Senate), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (also a tea party favorite), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
LaPierre will address the membership again Saturday before a “Stand and Fight” rally.
More than 70,000 people from across the country and abroad are expected to attend the three-day event at Houston’s downtown convention center drawn by, among other things, a gun trade show, youth day, firearms classes and a speech by rocker and NRA ally Ted Nugent.
“It is on track to be the largest NRA annual meeting ever,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told the Los Angeles Times. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fight that we’re in. People understand that now more than ever they need to come out and support the 2nd Amendment.”
Gun control advocates also planned to flock to the convention center, and Arulanandam said that shouldn’t cause friction.
“That is people exercising their 1st Amendment rights. We respect their 1st Amendment rights, and we hope they respect our 1st and 2nd Amendment rights,” he said.
Among events gun control groups have planned: a petition drive for expanded background checks of gun purchasers, veterans speaking out against illegal guns, and a vigil near the convention center for victims of gun violence that will start Friday morning and last through Sunday.
The “No More Names” vigil includes the names of those killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and others who have died since then in gun violence, said Lauren Weiner, a spokeswoman for Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Change.
When supporters held a similar event last month ahead of the Senate gun control vote, they had collected about 3,300 names, Weiner told The Times.
“We don’t want to add any more names to the list. That’s our goal ideally through passing legislation,” Weiner said.
Among those expected to attend the convention is Erica Lafferty, daughter of slain Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung. Lafferty has become an outspoken proponent of gun control legislation.
Weiner said the failure of gun control legislation has emboldened rather than demoralized supporters, citing an incident earlier this week in which Lafferty and others confronted Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) over her vote.
“We look at it as a first step in a process,” Weiner said of the legislation’s defeat. “It has galvanized folks — you’ve seen it in New Hampshire this week. Folks realize that we need to be louder,” particularly relatives of those killed in Newtown.
Kim Russell, national field director for the gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said their membership grew and donations poured in after the Senate vote (20% of their total donations to date came within 24 hours). They, too, plan to have a presence in Houston.
“That Senate vote was the second alarm. Newtown was the first,” Russell told The Times. “There’s a backlash now.”