At NRA Gathering, Protesters and Gun Supporters Spar

HOUSTON — On one side of an avenue in downtown Houston, people flocked to the National Rifle Association’s annual convention this weekend to talk about guns, admire guns, buy guns and invoke the right to bear as holy scripture. Second Amendment guns; that is, weapons.

On the other side of the avenue, people protested against guns, gun advocates, gun proliferation, and the unsanctity of Americans’ easy access to guns that facilitated two mass murders this month; that is, the murder of 10 people, all black, in a Buffalo supermarket, and the murder of 21 people, 19 of them children, in a Texas elementary school.

The avenue is called Avenida De Las Américas.

As people on one side of the avenue sweated and screamed in the scorching Texas sun, others filed into the comforting coolness of the George R. Brown Convention Center. But the air-conditioned room was not hermetically sealed. The massacre of schoolchildren earlier in the week had been in Uvalde, just 300 miles west of here. In time and distance, it was too close.

Inside, politicians spoke of “hardened” schools to a mix of NRA faithful and newcomers curious about the cause. Outside, veteran and rookie protesters waved handmade signs and pictures of children shot to death this week, in the faint hope of changing their minds.

These protesters included the likes of Dana Enríquez-Vontoure, an educator for more than 25 years, who stood outside the convention center with a sign she had made hours earlier. She repeated three words five times:

“Buses, not hearses.”

“It used to be that you would leave your babies with me and they would be safe,” said Ms Enriquez-Vontoure, 46, a mother of two girls. “Now we live in a world where we can’t promise that.”

He derided suggestions by some gun advocates to increase school safety by arming teachers and other school officials. She said that the doors of her local schools are closed during the day. To pick up her daughters, she has to scan a QR code, fill out a form, and wait for her daughter to be picked up. There are no weapons involved.

At that moment, a criminologist and mother named Aramis Miller appeared at Ms. Enriquez-Vontoure’s side. She was holding her own sign: “Don’t scapegoat the mentally ill,” and the two were about to join the larger protest, which drew many hundreds of people, across the avenue from the convention hall. . They have known each other since elementary school.

But those who showed the proper credentials were able to escape the heat of angry teachers and the scorching sun and enter the cozy atmosphere of the NRA convention.

Here was Michael Shao, 50, born in China and now living on Long Island, who said he was promoting gun safety programs for Asian Americans unnerved by the wave of violent attacks on members of their community. And here were three men from Chicago, all dressed in the Ukrainian colors of yellow and blue, searching for binoculars, night vision goggles, and other items that might come in handy.

“We are just looking around,” said Igor Terletsky, 50. “Seeing what is new on the market and how we can support our Ukrainian brothers and sisters.”

And here, too, was a white-haired man wearing a T-shirt that said, “We the people are angry.”

Like-minded people inside the convention mingled amicably, their bond of conversation about guns interrupted only by the angry, sometimes obscene chants emanating from across Avenida De Las Americas, and by reporters asking about their guns. reactions.

Tim Hickey, 45, who had come from Cleveland to promote his business, PatchOps.com, which sells “morale-boosting” political T-shirts and patches, bristled at the message “You hate kids!” chorus that is sung at this time. He has two sons, ages 14 and 12.

“I would die right now for one of his sons,” said Hickey, a bearded former Marine. “Would they do that? I do not think.”

He called the Uvalde massacre “heartbreaking” and said many gun owners cry in a slightly different way than others “because we wish we were there to stop it ourselves.”

Mr. Hickey defended existing gun laws, repeated a common refrain that “you can’t legislate evil” and saw no connection between the Uvalde shooting and the NRA, including this convention.

“That’s the media,” he said. “That’s what you do.”

Standing next to him was Kat Munoz, 34, of Novi, Michigan, who described herself as a survivor of domestic violence and a social media “influencer” for women’s self-advocacy. Her therapy dog, a Belgian Malinois named Millie, sat at her feet.

Mrs. Muñoz is the mother of two children, ages 11 and 9. She also expressed deep sadness for Uvalde. She also defended the country’s gun laws and the NRA. She said that, to her knowledge, none of those responsible for the mass shooting deaths were members of the NRA. And, she told her, “gun laws don’t change psychopaths from being psychopaths.”

She left to find a place for Millie to relieve herself, intending to stay away from the protesters gathered across the street. Later, as she stood in line to hear former President Donald J. Trump address the convention, Ms. Munoz texted that “recent events” had made her wonder if “we could commit to raising the age to buy a firearm or more stringent background checks on AR-15s,” the style of weapon used by the 18-year-old gunman in Uvalde, and the accused 18-year-old gunman in Buffalo.

“If that’s what it takes to not get rid of our rights entirely, I wouldn’t object if absolutely necessary,” he wrote.

The shooting massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde, joining Pittsburgh, Charleston, Parkland, Sandy Hook and too many other places to name here, had other effects on the NRA’s celebration of itself this year.

In the cavernous room outside the convention center’s exhibit area, an electronic billboard continued to promote a Saturday night musical event called “The NRA’s Big Night of Freedom,” featuring Lee Greenwood, heralded as “the most recognizable patriot in USA”; Don McLean, of “American Pie” fame; and Larry Gatlin, the country and gospel singer. Tickets: $25.

But all three dropped out at the end of last week. Mr. McLean told Fox News that acting would be “disrespectful.” Mr. Gatlin told CNN that “it would have been kind of a graceful move” for the NRA to cancel the convention and instead have a moment of prayer or silence.

There was another notable absence at one end of the room, where, according to the NRA’s exhibitor map, a large space had been reserved for Georgia firearms company Daniel Defense, the maker of a man-bought gun that killed 19 schoolchildren in Uvalde. Instead, the space was taken up by a few tables and a popcorn machine.

But the many exhibitors who showed up did their best to provide a happy, albeit temporary, break from the realities waiting just outside the gates. There was something for everyone, from the dedicated hunter to the eager survivor and those looking for outfits that could fashionably conceal a firearm.

Knives, pistols, and rifles were here, artfully displayed and available to be held. At a firearms manufacturer’s booth, a vendor urged a reporter to buy a short-barreled rifle with a side-folding stock. “Touch it! Feel it!” he said seductively. “It does not bite”.

Here were portable devices for collecting spent cartridges, elegant vaults for storing guns, and promotions for alligator hunting. A booth for the NRA cigar club. A booth for a wireless provider that promotes Christian conservatism. A long queue for some “Silencer Smooth” or whatever else was brewing at the Black Rifle Coffee Company.

As Friday progressed, NRA members began to leave the protective bubble of the convention center. They knew that the exhibit hall would open early on Saturday morning, offering the latest in Kalashnikovs, Rugers and Glocks, and that on Sunday, the last day of the convention, many would gather in the grand ballroom for a prayerful breakfast. on the menu.

In the heat of Friday night, some convention attendees stood on their side of the avenue, smoking cigarettes, watching the protests with disdain, and occasionally taking selfies against the backdrop of the angry crowd. Several said they believed that these protesters also had their rights.

Others ventured across the two lanes of highway, not to face shouted accusations that spared no one, including older veterans, but to pick up their cars or head to their hotels. They passed banners reading “Enough is enough”, “Guns are the death of America”. and “Am I next?” —is held up by a girl barely taller than the crowd control barrier gates, over which blood-red children’s clothing was draped.

Some of the NRA members, carrying bags of convention goodies, smiled and waved as they passed. Others, however, kept their eyes on the hot pavement.

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