Hundreds protest outside NRA convention in Texas days after massacre in Uvalde

Hundreds of people protested for gun control outside the annual National Rifle Assn. convention here Friday, days after the country’s latest mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, chanting, “Protect our kids, not guns!” and hoisting signs that read, “No more thoughts and prayers,” and, “Your hobby isn’t worth our kids’ lives!”

Courtney Harris, 29, of Houston, attended the protest with her three daughters, ages 8, 6 and 11 months. They carried signs: “How many more kids?” and listing 10 mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years.

After Tuesday’s school shooting in Uvalde, in which 21 people were killed, including 19 children, Harris said she kept her eldest daughters home from school out of fear. It didn’t matter that Uvalde is 270 miles to the west.

Courtney Harris brought her 8- and 6-year-old daughters to the protest outside the National Rifle Assn. convention in Houston on Friday.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s scary. There could be potential shooters in there buying guns for future events,” she said, gesturing to the convention center. “I can’t keep them out of school forever.”

Mandalyn Salazar of nearby League City brought her 15-year-old daughter, a rising sophomore. They were at the front of the protest, where more than a dozen police stood guard, half on horseback, in front of a massive NRA sign advertising “14 acres of guns & gear” at the ongoing conference.

People stand in lines in a park holding signs protesting gun violence

Protesters gather outside the NRA convention in Houston on Friday.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

“Policies need to change,” said Salazar, 52, a retired public health practitioner and gun owner. “I’m just fed up with the prayer vigils. I want action. “

Margaret Askandi carried a sign that said, “Stop the sale of assault rifles, everyone has a right to life.”

“My husband has rifles, but assault rifles are unnecessary,” said Askandi, 65, a retired bank trust officer from Houston.

Askandi, who’s Mexican American, attended the protest with her son, who’s also Persian American, because she said she’s become afraid after gunmen targeted people of color in Buffalo, N.Y., less than two weeks ago and in El Paso in 2016.

“What gives them a right to shoot us?” she said.

A woman and man hold a sign opposing the sale of assault weapons

Margaret Askandari and her son Amir Askandari hold a sign protesting the sale of assault rifles at NRA protest in Houston on Friday.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

The convention, which started Friday, has become embattled. Former President Trump is still scheduled to appear at an afternoon forum, but several other leaders have pulled out, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw. Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that he plans to appear via video from Uvalde. Several musical acts also canceled, including country conservative stalwart Lee Greenwood.

Several progressive groups planned the joint protest Friday afternoon to coincide with Trump’s appearance. Abbott’s political rival, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, was scheduled to appear after confronting Abbott over gun control at a briefing in Uvalde a day after the mass shooting. Other speakers included Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston and the chief executive of the surrounding county, Lina Hidalgo, according to Ashton Woods, founder and lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Houston.

“We’re building space to hold the families of Uvalde, to let them know that we are there for them, that we will stand up for them and we will be fighting for them — even when this is over — to make sure we get commonsense gun reform,” Woods said.

Inside the convention hall, thousands of attendees milled among displays that featured rows of handguns, silencers, gun safes and racks of customized assault-style rifles that ranged in price from $500 to more than $2,000.

It was truck driver Henry Cook’s first NRA convention. Cook, 68, of Deer Lodge, Mont., was wearing his lifetime NRA member T-shirt and said he and his wife attended even after his liberal son in Baltimore pleaded with him to cancel after the Uvalde shooting.

The Cooks oppose restrictions on guns, including red flag laws. “When they take guns away from legal gun owners, who’s going to stop the criminals? It makes us victims,” Cook said, adding that such actions threaten other constitutional freedoms because “the 2nd Amendment is what guarantees the others.”

Nearby, Chris Jensen wore a T-shirt featuring an AR-15-style rifle that said, “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.”

Jensen, 38, of Fort Worth said restricting gun rights wouldn’t prevent another mass shooting. “That gun didn’t kill anybody — a person did,” he said, surveying a display of handguns. “This is soul-cleansing. The two things America was founded on: guns and God. Where do we go for freedom if it ain’t in America?”

Texas is known for being a conservative, gun-friendly state, but its major cities are run by Democrats, and Democrats’ influence is spreading to the suburbs and rural areas, Woods said. He sees the convention as Republicans pushing back against the power of urban voters who favor gun control.

“Houston is a progressive city. They came to Houston because they know [Democrats] are slowly moving Texas at every level of government,” Woods said. “They’re planning to hold on to Texas and it’s just not happening. This state is moving from deep purple to light blue.”

After the shooting, some Texas Democrats and Republican have said they plan to push “commonsense gun laws,” such as more extensive background checks, red flag laws and increasing the age limit for buying AR-15-style rifles from 18 to 21. But many expect the NRA to mount lobbying efforts to block such measures, as they have in the past.

“As I talk to my Republican colleagues, they’re so scared to do something, it doesn’t make sense to me. Listen to your constituents, not the NRA,” said Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, whose district includes Uvalde, where he has been meeting with victims’ families. “I’m a gun owner. I hunt. For me, this was an issue of an 18-year-old being able to walk into a store days after his 18th birthday and pay thousands of dollars for an AR-15, hundreds of rounds of ammunition. At what point does that not raise a red flag?”

Gutierrez said he plans to push for state gun reforms at the next Texas legislative session in January.

“The biggest failure in this incident was the policymakers in Austin, which is the Republican leaders, the governor and others, who have refused to make commonsense changes in gun laws. Maybe if that kid had not had access to that weapon, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

Following the shooting, Abbott and other Texas Republicans have pushed back against gun control rhetoric by Democrats, including President Biden, focusing on mental health instead. Convention attendees and gun rights activists defended the NRA’s decision to move forward with the convention after the mass shooting.

“This isn’t a gun issue. There’s no reason the NRA should not do their convention here,” said C.J. Grisham, president and legal counsel for the gun rights group Open Carry Texas. “This is the perfect time to talk about and defend the right to bear arms as it’s under attack.”

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