HOUSTON — Vowing that "we will never surrender," the leader of the National Rifle Assn. claimed victory over recently defeated gun control legislation and denounced "political and media" elites for vilifying gun owners and supporting laws that would limit their rights rather than stop criminals.
"We will never give up or compromise our constitutional freedom — not one single inch," NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre told hundreds of supporters at the group's annual meeting here. "This is our time to stand and fight, now and in the next election."
LaPierre repeated his argument for placing police or armed guards in schools and questioning why gun control hasn't stopped violent crime in President Obama's adopted hometown of Chicago.
"The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," LaPierre said, drawing applause.
He pointed to the Boston Marathon bombing as evidence: "Good guys with guns stopped terrorists with guns."
Thousands have joined the NRA since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December, he said. He said the NRA membership, which stands at 5 million, is determined to double in size to mobilize against new legislation they expect after the recent defeat in the Senate of an expanded background-check law.
The convention alone was expected to draw a record crowd of more than 70,000 people Friday through Sunday. Saturday's annual meeting drew about 2,000.
LaPierre said 2nd Amendment freedom was "never more on the line than right now and through the 2014 elections."
NRA members said they left the annual meeting feeling reassured and energized.
"He told the truth," said Eddie Lee, a retired professor from McAlpin, Fla., who said he lies awake at night, worried about the fate of the country.
After hearing LaPierre, he said, "I feel a lot better."
Lee, 64, came to the convention with his son and his son's fiancee. Libertarian Wiccans, they said they disagree with some of the NRA's platform and don't fit the typical gun enthusiast stereotype. The fiancee said she doesn't listen to Fox News personality Glenn Beck. She doesn't even own a gun. She doesn't necessarily oppose expanded background checks, although the other two do.
Lee said he would like to see those leading the NRA and the country work together without compromising his right to bear arms.
"You have to be able to find some common ground," he said.
Others were more wary.
" 'Stand and fight' — I love that slogan," Robin Wooten said of this year's convention theme as she left after hearing LaPierre.
Wooten, a nurse from the East Texas town of Spurger, agreed with most of what LaPierre said: She opposes expanded background checks for gun purchasers, and she wants armed guards in schools and more enforcement of existing gun laws.
Through a window at the convention hall, Wooten and her husband, Raymond, caught sight of about 50 gun control protesters gathered across the street. They stopped to read the signs: "Protect our children," "More guns = more death," and "Background checks and waiting periods do not infringe the 2nd Amendment."
One protester was dressed as the grim reaper. Another toted a sign featuring a check made out to "Lobbyists" signed by LaPierre and dripping blood. They were relatives of those killed at Sandy Hook, volunteers from Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
The Wootens saw someone shouting at the protesters.
"That's a shame," said Raymond Wooten, 67, a retired state trooper.
"They have just as much a right to be here as we do," his wife added as they turned back toward the convention hall.
Outside the hall, NRA member Alex Antoci, 24, of Houston was trying to talk to the protesters, whose voices were rising.
"I'm just trying to understand your point of view," Antoci told a woman holding a sign that said "Protect our kids not the NRA."
"We don't want to take away your guns," said the woman, Gwin Bosco, a stay-at-home mom of four from Houston who came to the protest with a local group, Texans for Smart Gun Regulation, for the first time.
Antoci asked whether universal background checks would really stop a determined criminal.
Another protester chimed in: "It would slow him down."
Antoci and his girlfriend, a fellow NRA member, were not convinced.
"If they can present a reasonable argument that makes sense to me, then yes, I would accept it," he said. "The problem is everyone is focused on extremes."
Some men wearing NRA name tags booed as they passed the protesters, shouting, "You all need to find something else to do," and "I've got a gun for my kids — I feel sorry for your kids."
Some, like a man in a "Got ammo?" T-shirt, just passed or watched from a distance. An activist for Code Pink stopped one passing NRA member and invited her to join protesters reading the names of those killed by guns since Sandy Hook. The NRA member declined.
Lee, the retired Florida professor, and his family were among NRA members who crossed the street to talk with protesters.
"We're having good conversations," Lee said. "I shook hands with the grim reaper — he's a great guy. He owns guns."
Lee said he regretted tension between the two sides, and hoped both could see what they share as Americans and build on that.
"The people I've talked to, they're listening. Hopefully, they see that we're just normal people," he said, repeating a point LaPierre made about how NRA members are average Americans. "If they see that, maybe they see us."