HOUSTON — The National Rifle Association annual meeting over the holiday weekend drew a smaller-than-expected crowd, according to attendees and exhibitors, adding to the sense that the preeminent gun lobby was on the ropes.
Some speculated that the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, just days before the convention and the ensuing cascade of cancellations by scheduled speakers and entertainers helped deter crowds. The excuses, however, only underscored the NRA’s predicament.
“So many of the members at large have given up on the NRA through the past two years with its legal problems and corruption questions,” said an NRA member from New York who attended the convention.
This member, like others who showed up in Houston, remained steadfast in opposition to most new gun laws that Democrats offer as a solution to gun violence, including expanding the mandatory background checks to private sales, banning military-style semiautomatic rifles or using “red flag” laws to confiscate firearms from people deemed to be a threat.
And they struck a defensive stance against scorn that Democratic lawmakers heaped upon the NRA for gun violence in America and for the Uvalde shooting, where an 18-year-old gunman with a legally purchased AR-15-style rifle killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school.
Without question, the bloodshed just a few hundred miles away in Uvalde cast a dark cloud over the NRA convention.
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However, NRA members in attendance openly criticized the NRA leadership that’s been beset by scandal, accusations of corruption and lawsuits.
The member from New Yorker said other NRA members “aren’t going to invest in coming here just to see another vote supporting the status quo.”
When former President Donald Trump helped kick off the convention with a speech Friday, about a third of the 3,600-seat theater was empty.
Mr. Trump joined a reduced lineup of Republican officials who addressed NRA members and leaned into proposals to beef up school security as opposed to tougher gun laws.
“What we need now is a top-to-bottom security overhaul at schools all across our country. Every building should have a single point of entry,” Mr. Trump said. “There should be strong exterior fencing, metal detectors and the use of new technology to make sure that no unauthorized individual can ever enter the school with a weapon.”
The NRA had hoped to make a triumphant return after canceling the 2020 and 2021 annual meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It scheduled this year’s confab for the long Memorial Day weekend, complete with plans for country music stars singing patriotic tunes.
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The NRA expected tens of thousands of attendees. In previous years, the attendance topped 80,000. The NRA has not yet released an official headcount, but vast sections of the cavernous George R. Brown Convention Center were empty each day of the conference.
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
“This is the lowest attendance I’ve seen in my years covering the convention. Turnout was clearly down from previous years. But the gun-control protests, which have long been a staple of the event, appeared to be on par with previous years,” Stephen Gutowski, editor of the firearms newsletter The Reload, told The Washington Times.
He added: “There wasn’t a significant increase in turnout for the protests either. It seems most Americans weren’t interested in turning out for the event from either end of the issue.”
Indeed, the protesters, who claimed that the NRA’s presence in the city was offensive, massed their biggest demonstration on Friday with more than 1,000 people outside the convention center.
By Saturday, their numbers diminished to roughly 100 as they exchanged taunts and insults with NRA members across the street.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat running for Texas governor, joined the protests outside the NRA convention. He said: “You are not our enemies. We are not yours. We extend our hand open and unarmed in a gesture of peace and fellowship to welcome you to join us.”
He then warned the NRA and its supporters that they will lose the gun-control fight.
“We will defeat you, and we will overcome you, and we will leave you behind,” said Mr. O’Rourke.
At the convention, NRA members had expected to enjoy live music, but the main musical acts — Don McLean, Larry Gatlin, Lee Greenwood and Larry Stewart — all canceled their performances scheduled for Saturday night.
“In light of the recent events in Texas, I have decided it would be disrespectful and hurtful for me to perform for the NRA at their convention in Houston this week,” Mr. McLean said in a statement Thursday. “I’m sure all the folks planning to attend this event are shocked and sickened by these events as well. After all, we are all Americans.”
Mr. Gatlin and Mr. Greenwood released similar statements.
Some members at the convention bristled at the cancellations, equating their statements to the protesters outside the convention hall who blamed the NRA for the mass shootings.
“That’s what these [protesters] think, too,” one NRA member said.
The NRA has suffered declining membership and revenue in recent years, even as gun sales in the U.S. soared during the earlier part of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its revenues slipped 23% from $367 million in 2016 to $282 million in 2020, according to a CBS News report about the group’s most recently available tax filings.
Membership hit 5 million in 2013, prompting NRA CEO and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre to predict it would grow to 10 million, according to a USA Today report. But in a 2021 deposition, Mr. LaPierre said membership was under 4.9 million.
On Monday, Mr. LaPierre will stand for reelection by the group’s 76-member board of directors.
The NRA has been under legal assault since 2018 by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who considers the gun group a “terrorist organization.” The lawsuits include court action aimed at dissolving the NRA and the NRA Foundation, which was tossed out by the New York State Supreme Court.
NRA finally wrapped up another legal headache in March by settling a dispute with its former marketing firm Ackerman McQueen. The two sides traded accusations of financial wrongdoing, but the legal battle started in 2019 when the NRA claimed Ackerman McQueen overcharged, doctored invoices and misrepresented the employment status of former NRA President Lt. Col. Oliver North as a third-party contractor instead of a full-time employee of the advertising firm.
At the same time, accusations among NRA leadership included reports of self-dealing and financial malfeasance and the organization accused Mr. North of scheming with Ackerman McQueen and the NRA’s former chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, of an attempted coup to oust Mr. LaPierre.
Ackerman McQueen disputed these allegations and filed counter-claims. The March settlement came one day before the case was to go to trial.