Trump and GOP Leaders Speak at NRA Event in Houston After Texas School Shooting

Lucas Jackson | Reuters
  • Former President Donald Trump spoke at an NRA event in Houston after a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
  • Other prominent Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, joined Trump at the NRA's annual meeting. Some other GOP leaders, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, opted out of attending in person.
  • President Joe Biden, who criticized the "gun lobby" in a somber speech Tuesday night, will travel to Uvalde with first lady Jill Biden on Sunday, the White House said.

Former President Donald Trump delivered a headline speech in support of gun rights at a National Rifle Association event in Houston on Friday, days after a shooting massacre at a Texas elementary school stoked a fervent push to strengthen firearm laws.

"The existence of evil in our world is not a reason to disarm law-abiding citizens," Trump said at the NRA convention. "The existence of evil is one of the very best reasons to arm law-abiding citizens."

The speech at the NRA's self-described "celebration of Second Amendment rights" came three days after an 18-year-old gunman — wielding an AR-15-style long rifle that he had purchased legally — opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 children and two adults. The massacre marked the deadliest school shooting in Texas history.

Hours before Trump took the stage, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, a less-than-five-hour drive from the site of the massacre. The crowds included children and adults holding anti-NRA signs, chanting and displaying photos of shooting victims.

Gun rights activists and supporters protest outside the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center, on May 27, 2022, in Houston, Texas.
Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images
Gun rights activists and supporters protest outside the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center, on May 27, 2022, in Houston, Texas.

Trump's remarks began with a focus on guns, but quickly morphed into a campaign-like speech featuring frequent attacks against Democrats and the Biden administration on a wide range of issues, including crime, immigration, "defunding the police" and Russia's war in Ukraine.

He also again repeated, multiple times, his false claim that the 2020 presidential election was "rigged" against him, and hinted that he may mount another White House bid in 2024.

The former president's speech came after some Republican would-be speakers backed out of the NRA conference.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas announced Friday morning that he would cancel a planned speaking appearance at an NRA breakfast event "after prayerful consideration and discussion with NRA officials," adding, "This is a time to focus on the families, first and foremost."

Two other Texas Republicans, Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, told CNBC earlier this week that they had backed out of the conference prior to the Uvalde shooting.

Cornyn had an "unexpected change in his schedule" and "has to be in D.C. for personal reasons on Friday," Cornyn spokeswoman Natalie Yezbick said in an email Wednesday. Justin Discigil, Crenshaw's chief of staff, said the congressman is unable to make it back from Kyiv, Ukraine, in time to attend the event.

Multiple musical guests, including "God Bless the USA" singer Lee Greenwood and Don McLean of "American Pie" fame, also pulled out of a concert that had been organized as part of the NRA convention.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who had been slated to appear alongside Trump on Friday afternoon, instead made a return trip to Uvalde, his office said Thursday.

In a video message that played at the convention center, Abbott said he was "heartbroken by such a senseless tragedy."

"The loss of their child is a tragedy that no parent should ever have to endure," Abbott said. He also took a general stance against enacting new gun-restricting laws to try to prevent future shootings.

But other leading Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, went ahead with their speeches at the event, which started around 3 p.m. CT.

Cruz in 30-minute remarks claimed that arguments about guns problems in the U.S. are being pushed by "elites who dominate our culture," a group that he said includes the rich and powerful, media figures and celebrities, who can afford an "indulgent ideology." Public opinion polls have repeatedly showed that a strong majority of Americans support one of the most discussed gun regulation proposals — background checks for all firearm sales.

Cruz suggested the blame for violence lies with a failure of culture rather than the availability of firearms.

"It's never been about guns," Cruz said.

"What stops armed bad guys is armed good guys," Cruz said. That argument, repeated over the years by gun-rights advocates, came under scrutiny this week after it became known that police did not enter the room the gunman was in until more than 45 minutes after they entered Robb Elementary in Uvalde.

Cruz also advocated for schools buildings having just one point of entry, guarded by multiple armed police officers or military veterans.

Noem's speech shared a view of U.S. politics as a battle against the political left, the media, "woke mobs" and others described as enemies of the Second Amendment and freedom.

"Now is not the time to quit. Now is the time to double down," Noem said in her 20-minute speech, which at times veered away from the issue of guns to tout her record as governor. Noem is considered a Republican prospect for a 2024 presidential run.

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson also spoke at the forum.

Noem, in a promotional video shared on the NRA's social media over the weekend, paraphrased a quote from Charlton Heston, the late actor and former NRA leader: "Joe Biden, I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands."

President Joe Biden, who criticized the "gun lobby" in a somber speech Tuesday night, will travel to Uvalde on Sunday with first lady Jill Biden to "grieve with the community," the White House said.

In a statement Wednesday, the NRA offered its "deepest sympathies" to the victims and families affected by the "horrific and evil crime." The group said it would "pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure."

The most powerful gun-rights organization in the country, the NRA has opposed most efforts to restrict firearm access — including by expanding background checks on gun purchases, a plan that most Democrats and gun-control activists support. Multiple bills to strengthen background checks passed the Democrat-led House in 2019, but were halted in the Senate.

Bipartisan talks on potential gun legislation — which appear to focus on more stringent background checks and so-called red flag laws — restarted in the Senate this week. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave Cornyn the green light to negotiate with Democrats on proposals that the Texas senator believes would have helped prevent the shooting in his state.

The NRA and some Republican lawmakers have instead suggested the U.S should strengthen security in public spaces and focus on mental health, among other proposals to address gun violence without restricting gun ownership. Cruz, for instance, this week floated the idea that school buildings should have just one entrance that is guarded by an armed officer.

Their critics say those arguments ignore the root of the issue. They often point out that mass shootings are far more common in the U.S. than in other nations where guns are much less prevalent.

Those critics have gone on the offensive after the massacre in Uvalde, which came 10 days after an 18-year-old white man shot and killed 10 people in a racially motivated attack at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York.

Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Texas, crashed Abbott's press conference Wednesday and berated the governor over his handling of the mass shooting. After O'Rourke was escorted from the room, Abbott called for Americans "to not focus on ourselves and our agendas" but instead focus on healing.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Thursday morning called Abbott "an absolute fraud" for those "empty platitudes," while noting that the governor was set to speak at the NRA conference two days later.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said Thursday that his city could not cancel the NRA convention, which is scheduled to last the whole weekend, because it would "leave the city subject to a number of legal issues."

"The greater question is why are elected officials speaking there, and what message does that send," Turner said. "You can't pray and send condolences on one day and go and champion guns on the next."

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