HOUSTON — One by one, the gun rights activists and politicians who showed up at the National Rifle Association convention on Friday said they were appalled, horrified and shaken by the massacre of 19 children and two adults a few days earlier in Uvalde, Texas.
One by one, they then rejected any suggestion that gun control measures were needed to stop mass shootings. They blamed the atrocities on factors that had nothing to do with firearms — the breakdown of the American family, untreated mental illness, bullying on social media, violent video games and the inexplicable existence of “evil.”
Above all, they sought to divert pressure to support popular overhauls like expanded background checks by seizing on the issue of school safety, amid reports that the gunman in Uvalde gained easy access to Robb Elementary School through an unguarded door.
Former President Donald J. Trump, speaking at the event’s keynote session late Friday, called for “impenetrable security at every school all across our land,” adding that “schools should be the single hardest target.”
He began his remarks by somberly reciting the names of those killed in Uvalde, to the toll of recorded church bells. But he quickly jumped on the attack, blaming President Biden, who has passed billions in education aid, for increasing military spending instead of paying for greater school security.
In 2018, after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students, the Trump administration convened a school safety commission. Its most concrete step was to repeal school policies meant to ensure that minority children were not unfairly disciplined, which critics said did not directly address the issue of gun violence.
Mr. Trump was greeted by thunderous applause from supporters, some of them wearing oversized N.R.A. convention credentials over their fading Trump-Pence T-shirts.
Yet behind the bravado was an awkward modulation between despair and defiance. A convention that promised to be a major test for an N.R.A. weakened by scandal and internal conflict, even before Uvalde, spotlighted the struggle in the Republican Party to reconcile near-total opposition to gun control with growing outrage after a spate of mass killings facilitated by easy access to semiautomatic weapons.
“They have been doing this for years,” said Kellye Burke, 54, a gun control activist from Houston who participated in a protest against the N.R.A. in the park across from the convention center. “They talk about the tragedy, then blame it on something other than guns.”
From Opinion: The Texas School Shooting
Commentary from Times Opinion on the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
- Michelle Goldberg: As we come to terms with yet another tragedy, the most common sentiment is a bitter acknowledgment that nothing is going to change.
- Nicholas Kristof, a former Times Opinion columnist: Gun policy is complicated and politically vexing, and it won’t make everyone safe. But it could reduce gun deaths.
- Roxane Gay: For all our cultural obsession with civility, there is nothing more uncivilized than the political establishment’s acceptance of the constancy of mass shootings.
- Jay Caspian Kang: By sharing memes with each new tragedy, we have created a museum of unbearable sorrow, increasingly dense with names and photos of the deceased.
Ovidia Molina, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, grew emotional talking about children bearing the burden of repeated violence. “Every time I hear of another school shooting — every time I hear of another school shooting — it breaks my heart,” she said, appearing alongside school shooting survivors and gun control activists at an event organized by teachers’ unions in Houston to counter the N.R.A. convention. “It should not be their burden to carry, to make adults take action to save our children’s lives.”
The convention was well attended but not entirely packed; the forum that hosted Mr. Trump was held in an auditorium that appeared to be about three-quarters occupied.
The convention had its share of no-shows. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn, both withdrew, citing other commitments. Several marquee musical performers, including Lee Greenwood, Don McLean and Larry Gatlin, opted out, citing their respect for the victims and their families.
Steve Reed, the vice president of marketing at Daniel Defense, the gun manufacturer that made the weapon used in the attack, also pulled out. “We believe this week is not the appropriate time to be promoting our products in Texas at the N.R.A. meeting,” he wrote in a statement.
The massacre dominated conversation inside the convention center. Attendees who were checking their weapons at the “knife check” desk were discussing the response times of the local police — and some N.R.A. staff and volunteers peeked into the press room where TVs were showing coverage of the story on Fox News.
Despite these concerns, many of the attendees expressed anger at the negative press coverage the N.R.A. has received, and some urged defiance in the face of growing calls for gun control.
Senator Ted Cruz, who preceded Mr. Trump on the podium, began his speech with a tribute to the dead in Uvalde. He then offered an unapologetic defense of gun rights, warning N.R.A. members that the liberal “elites” would try to capitalize on the tragedy to destroy the Second Amendment.
“Now is not the time to yield to panic,” Mr. Cruz said.
Wayne LaPierre, the embattled head of the N.R.A., opened the convention by calling out “the evil” of the attack in Uvalde. Then he quickly pivoted to saying the federal government could not “legislate against evil,” and said Mr. Biden’s gun control proposals would restrict “the fundamental human right of law-abiding Americans to defend themselves.”
Rank-and-file N.R.A. members, along with journalists, began streaming into the George R. Brown Convention Center late on Thursday for a three-day convention scheduled from Friday through Sunday.
The N.R.A.’s convention was planned months ago, before the killings in Uvalde and a racist attack on a supermarket in Buffalo earlier this month that left 10 people dead. Both gunmen used AR-15-type semiautomatics that have been legal since the expiration of the assault weapons ban in 2004, a big victory for the N.R.A.
“Our deepest sympathies are with the families and victims involved in this horrific and evil crime,” the N.R.A. said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Mr. Trump’s appearance was the high point of the convention for many in attendance. But what he said — he veered off script into his accustomed litany of complaints and digressions after discussing school safety — was arguably less important to the N.R.A. than simply his decision to honor his commitment to come.
“Unlike some, I didn’t disappoint you by not showing up,” he said to raucous applause.
In the wake of previous killings, Mr. Trump has been more willing than many of the gun rights activists who support him to embrace gun reforms — though they have been more modest ones, such as expanded background checks.
But it is Mr. Trump’s boisterous, visceral and, above all, consistent support of their cause that mattered most to the hundreds of attendees, most of them white and middle-aged, who stood in line waiting to hear him speak.
“He’s always with us, always supporting us, when a lot of people are running in the other direction,” said Bob Legge, 52, a construction manager from Houston. “I think him coming here, at this time, is huge.”
Ellen Pentland, an N.R.A. member from Houston, said she was “extremely sad” for the families of the victims and called for programs to improve school safety, moderate extreme social media content and address “the awful mental health issues out there.”
The Uvalde gunman had no record of mental health problems, officials say.
Many of Mr. Trump’s admirers in the N.R.A. said ahead of his speech on Friday that they expected him to express his sympathy for the victims of the latest massacre, then reiterate his support for the gun rights movement.
“He knows it’s not the N.R.A.’s fault,” said Nyla Cheely, 64, who traveled from Palm Springs, Calif. — and spent the last several days fretting that Mr. Trump might not show up.
“But he didn’t cancel,” she added. “He’s here to support us. I’m really glad.”
Sarah Mervosh contributed reporting from New York, and Luke Vander Ploeg from Houston.