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The NRA gathering in Houston spotlights an American divide

Gun supporters and protesters mourned two shooting massacres in a single month, but the gap in their views on what to do next remained wide.

By: New York Times |
May 29, 2022 1:30:53 pm
Attendees watch protesters outside the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Houston on May 27, 2022. (Annie Mulligan/The New York Times)

Written by Dan Barry

On one side of an avenue in downtown Houston, people filed into the National Rifle Association’s annual convention this weekend to talk guns, admire guns, buy guns and invoke as holy script the Second Amendment right to bear arms — that is, guns.

On the other side of the avenue, people protested against guns, the defenders of guns, the proliferation of guns and the unholiness of Americans’ easy access to guns that facilitated two mass murders this month — that is, the killing of 10 people, all of them Black, in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket; and the killing of 21 people, 19 of them children, at a Texas elementary school.

The avenue is called the Avenida De Las Americas.

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

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

These protesters included people like Dana Enriquez-Vontoure, an educator for more than 25 years, who stood outside the convention center with a sign she had made hours earlier. It 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 Enriquez-Vontoure, 46, the mother of two girls. “Now we live in a world where we can’t promise that.”

People attend the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Houston on May 27, 2022. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)

She scoffed at suggestions by some gun advocates to increase school safety by arming teachers and other school officials. She said the doors at her local schools are locked during the day. To collect her daughters, she has to scan a QR code, fill out a form and wait for her child to be escorted out. No guns involved.

The like-minded inside the convention mingled amicably, their gun talk bonding interrupted only by the angry, sometimes obscene chants emanating from across the Avenida De Las Americas and by journalists asking for their reactions.

Tim Hickey, 45, who had come from Cleveland to promote his business, PatchOps.com, which sells “morale-boosting” patches and political T-shirts, rankled at the “You hate kids!” chorus being sung at the moment. He has two children, ages 14 and 12.

“I would right now die for one of their children,” said Hickey, a bearded retired Marine. “Would they do that? I don’t think so.”

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

Standing beside him was Kat Munoz, 34, from Novi, Michigan, who described herself as a survivor of domestic violence and a social media “influencer” for female self-defense. Her therapy dog, a Belgian Malinois named Millie, sat at her feet.

Protesters listen to speakers during rally outside the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Houston on May 27, 2022. (Annie Mulligan/The New York Times)

Munoz is a mother of two, ages 11 and 9. She, too, expressed deep sadness over Uvalde. She also defended the country’s gun laws and the NRA. She said as far as she knew, none of those responsible for mass-shooting deaths were NRA members. And, she said, “Gun laws don’t change psychopaths from being psychopaths.”

She went off to find a place for Millie to relieve herself, with intentions to stay far from the protesters gathered across the street. Later, while in line to hear former President Donald Trump address the convention, Munoz texted that “recent events” had made her wonder whether “we could compromise with raising the age to buy a firearm or stricter background checks on AR-15s,” the style of weapon used by the 18-year-old gunman in Uvalde and the 18-year-old accused gunman in Buffalo.

“If that’s what it takes to not get rid of our rights altogether, I would not oppose that if absolutely necessary,” she wrote.

The shooting massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde — which join Pittsburgh; Charleston, South Carolina; Parkland, Florida; Newtown, Connecticut; and other locations too numerous to name here — had other effects on the NRA’s celebration of itself this year.

In the cavernous hall outside the convention center’s exhibit area, an electronic sign continued to promote a Saturday night musical event called “NRA’s Grand Ole Night of Freedom,” featuring Lee Greenwood, billed as “America’s most recognized patriot”; Don McLean, of “American Pie” fame; and Larry Gatlin, a country and gospel singer. Tickets: $25.

Protesters outside the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Houston on May 28, 2022. (Annie Mulligan/The New York Times)

But all three dropped out this past week. McLean told Fox News that performing would be “disrespectful.” Gatlin told CNN that it “would have been kind of a classy move” for the NRA to cancel the convention and instead have a moment of prayer or silence.

There was another noticeable absence at one end of the hall, where, according to the NRA’s map of exhibitors, a large space had been reserved for Georgia firearms company Daniel Defense, manufacturer of a gun purchased by the man who killed 19 schoolchildren in Uvalde. Instead, the space was occupied by a few tables and a popcorn machine.

But the many exhibitors that did show up did their best to provide a blissful, if temporary, separation from the realities waiting just outside the doors. There was something for everyone, from the dedicated hunter to the anxious survivalist to those seeking outfits that could fashionably conceal a handgun.

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

In the Friday evening heat, some conventioneers lingered on their side of the avenue, smoking cigarettes, watching the protests with disdain, occasionally taking selfies with the angry crowd as a backdrop. Several said they believed these demonstrators had their rights, too.

Others ventured across the two lanes of road — not to engage with the shouted accusations that spared no one, including older veterans, but to collect their cars or make their way to their hotels. They passed placards saying “Enough Is Enough,” “Guns Are the Death of U.S.” and “Am I Next?” — this one held by a girl barely taller than the crowd-controlling barrier gates, over which were draped children’s clothing stained blood red.

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

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First published on: 29-05-2022 at 01:30:53 pm
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