POLITICS
05/07/2018 12:00 pm ET Updated May 07, 2018

Amid Nationwide Calls For Gun Control, A Defiant NRA Readies Its Base For Battle

Cries for more gun restrictions have surged in the three months since the Parkland, Florida, shooting left 17 dead. You wouldn’t know it at the NRA’s annual convention.
Avi Katz shoulders a display weapon to test out a scope at the annual NRA meeting in Dallas, TX.
Joseph Rushmore for HuffPost
Avi Katz shoulders a display weapon to test out a scope at the annual NRA meeting in Dallas, TX.

DALLAS ― John Lott, the National Rifle Association’s favorite academic and gun researcher, had a question for the mostly older, white, male crowd seated in front of him.

How many of them had heard someone say that federal gun research has been stymied for years because of Congress? Or that the U.S. has a uniquely high rate of gun homicide compared to other nations? Or that guns make suicide easier?

All those claims were lies, he said, told by gun control advocates and repeated by an unquestioning media intent on pushing an anti-gun agenda.

Over the weekend the NRA held its 147th annual convention, and Lott, whose highly discredited book More Guns, Less Crime, is considered the bible of the gun lobby, addressed a packed room inside the Kay Hutchison Convention Center here in downtown Dallas. For three days, gun rights enthusiasts gathered to peruse the newest firearms and gear, attend educational seminars such as “Refuse to be a victim: Crime prevention strategies,” and “14 factors impacting your shooting performance under duress,” and to simply have fun.

Many were also there to send a pointed political message: NRA, we support you.

Economist and author John Lott Jr. addresses attendees of "The War on Guns" seminar at the NRA annual meeting on May 6.
Joseph Rushmore for HuffPost
Economist and author John Lott Jr. addresses attendees of "The War on Guns" seminar at the NRA annual meeting on May 6.

The NRA is now on the defense as it faces off against a country that is mostly fed up with current gun control laws that did not prevent horrific mass shootings like those that took place in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Texas, and most recently in Parkland, Florida.

Since February, the U.S. has witnessed nationwide protests, student walkouts and countless state legislative wins. This coming November, advocates promise to vote out politicians who take money from the NRA, which opposes virtually every state and federal effort to tighten existing gun laws or pass any new gun safety measures.

At the convention, many attendees disputed the idea that gun control is gaining momentum.

Instead, they said it was a false narrative created by the media. Fake news, in other words. Many participants told HuffPost that journalists ignore positive stories about guns, such as home invasions thwarted by gun owners. They said the media spends a disproportionate amount of time covering gun violence.

A crowd watches a screen showing a live feed of President Trump's speech at the NRA annual meeting on May 4.
Joseph Rushmore for HuffPost
A crowd watches a screen showing a live feed of President Trump's speech at the NRA annual meeting on May 4.

“It’s what the press chooses to cover,” said Brian Lilly, 49, who attended the convention for the first time this year, alongside his father and his 18-year-old son, Benjamin. “They are censoring what the true pulse of the citizenry thinks.”

When his son, a high school senior, was asked what he thought about his fellow students who were advocating for gun control, he exhaled sharply.

“I think they want to get out of class,” he said. “It’s what’s on the news. They can’t back up their claims. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” The biggest misperception about guns is that “they’re always used for bad things and they’re not used for good,” he said.

Dante Martin, 52, agreed. He stood at the Beretta booth, testing out a semi-automatic handgun he was looking to potentially acquire for his wife. It was his first convention despite being an NRA member for a decade. This year, he brought his 15-year-old son as a reward for getting good grades.

“Guns don’t kill people ― people kill people,” Martin said. “Everyone has sympathy for people who were killed in these horrific events, but how many people are killed by drunk drivers? Where’s the outrage there?”

He, like others interviewed, said that if guns were removed, perpetrators would just use vehicles to commit mass murder. “Without your second amendment rights, all the other [amendments] are just suggestions,” he added.

Inside the sprawling exhibit hall, giant photos of NRA leaders bore down on members as they pointed and pulled the triggers of unloaded firearms, the sound of metallic clicks filling the air. There was a tone of jubilance and celebration.

A poster with a silhouette of a woman carrying a grocery bag in the dark asked ominously if she was “trained for what’s around the next corner.” Dozens of people lined up to try a virtual reality simulator to test their firearm skills in a self-defense scenario. As people examined firearms on the floor, it was common to see them pointed directly at passersby.  

Outside the convention, cars decked out with enlarged photos of victims of gun violence circled the center, weaving between an endless stream of convention-goers as they crossed the street. Protesters gathered on Friday and Saturday to rally against the gun group but were greatly outnumbered by the more than 87,000 people who attended the NRA event, which set a new record

The site of the convention was notable for its proximity to two historic acts of violence. It is blocks from where Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy, using a mail-order rifle he bought from an ad in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine, and the location of a police ambush in 2016 in which five police officers were killed.

Tim Oelklaus of Missouri holds up a display rifle on the expo floor of the annual NRA meeting in Dallas, Texas, on May 4
Joseph Rushmore for HuffPost
Tim Oelklaus of Missouri holds up a display rifle on the expo floor of the annual NRA meeting in Dallas, Texas, on May 4.

Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin was fatally shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, implored President Donald Trump to listen to survivors as he painted a mural on Saturday, in front of hundreds of protesters.  

“I’m impressed with the support that the NRA got from our president yesterday,” Oliver said, his voice strained. “I haven’t heard from President Trump the name of my son, not even once.”

Speaking in front of the NRA on Friday, Trump appeared comfortable and happy, buoyed by the enthusiasm of the crowd who laughed uproariously at his jokes. In a typically meandering speech, he made fun of John Kerry for breaking his leg and thanked rap artist Kanye West for boosting his poll numbers among black Americans. He also mimicked the mass shooting at the Bataclan theater in Paris using finger guns. No one laughed at that.

He urged NRA members to get out and vote in November.

“We cannot get complacent,” he said. “We have to win the midterms.”

Attendees said they were not fazed by Trump’s inconsistencies on gun rights. After the Parkland shooting, he suggested that firearms should be immediately confiscated from people deemed dangerous, raising alarms among gun rights proponents.

“I think he’s in our corner,” said Mr. Nichols, a retired military member from San Antonio who only gave his last name. “I tend to look at his actions, not always what he says.”

“The only thing I wish he would do is stop tweeting,” said a 52-year-old Texas man who only wanted to be identified by his first name, Donald. “Shut up and get offline.”

Donald said he was a “lifetime member” of the NRA, a level of membership which costs $1,500 and does not ever need to be renewed. He was at the convention with his wife and son. All three work in their family-owned barbecue restaurant, which has been broken into five times. They keep a gun on site for protection. His son become a lifetime NRA member earlier that day.

The NRA are “on the front lines, fighting for our rights,” Donald said. “Individually, I don’t feel like I have any power, but as part of a group I do.”

Protesters march to the Kay Bailey Convention center where the NRA annual meeting is being held on May 4.
Joseph Rushmore for HuffPost
Protesters march to the Kay Bailey Convention center where the NRA annual meeting is being held on May 4.
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