AUSTIN, Texas — The National Rifle Association has spent much of the past year under siege, ardently defending gun rights following mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut and fighting back against mounting pressure for stricter laws in Washington and state capitols across the country.
Now, after winning a major victory over President Barack Obama with the defeat of a gun control bill in the U.S. Senate, the powerful gun-rights lobby will gather in Houston this weekend for its annual convention.
Organizers anticipate a rollicking, Texas-sized party – one that celebrates the group’s recent victory while stressing the fight against gun control is far from over.
“If you are an NRA member, you deserve to be proud,” Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s brash, no-compromises chief executive wrote to the organization’s 5 million members last week, telling them they “exemplify everything that’s good and right about America.”
The NRA couldn’t have picked a friendlier place to refresh the troops. More than 70,000 people are expected to attend the three-day “Stand and Fight”-themed event, which includes a gun trade show, political rally and strategy meeting.
Texas, with its frontier image and fierce sense of independence, is one of the strongest gun-rights states in the country. More than 500,000 people are licensed to carry concealed handguns, including Gov. Rick Perry, who once bragged about shooting a coyote on a morning jog.
Concealed handguns are allowed the state Capitol, where simply showing a license allows armed visitors to bypass metal detectors.
Friday’s big event is a political forum with speeches from several state and national conservative leaders, including Perry, former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican Texas firebrand who has become one of the top tea party voices in Washington since being elected last year. LaPierre speaks to the convention on Saturday before the “Stand and Fight” rally at night.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam predicted the convention will draw the largest crowd in its history.
“The geography is helpful,” Arulanandam said. “The current (political) climate helps.”
For NRA member Mike Cox, a concealed handgun license instructor from rural Wimberley, the recent Senate vote showed not only the power of the NRA, but demonstrated to its members the need to dig in and recruit more members.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm right now,” Cox said. “This isn’t over by any means.”
Gun control advocates say they will have a presence around the NRA convention, with plans for a vigil for victims of gun violence, a petition drive to support background checks and a Saturday demonstration outside the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi, was killed in the Colorado theater shooting in July 2012, met privately with Cruz in San Antonio this week. Phillips said Cruz refused to budge on expanding background checks and told her he considered it the first step toward government confiscation of guns.
“They’re always good at saying the right thing, ‘I’m so sorry for you loss and da da da da da,”’ Phillips said. “If you’re really sorry for my loss, do something about it.”
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Cruz called efforts by Obama and gun control advocates to push for expanded background checks an attempt to “undermine the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”
Despite polls that show most Americans favor some expansion of background checks, Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said a big challenge facing gun control advocates is matching the NRA’s grassroots organizing, or as he called it “closing the passion gap.”
“The NRA knows this issue is very much in play. People were sickened by that Senate vote,” Everitt said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has said he will reintroduce the bill to require criminal and mental health background checks for gun buyers at shows and online. And despite their loss on the federal level, gun control advocates have scored some significant victories at the state level.
Lawmakers in Colorado passed new restrictions on firearms, including required background checks for private and online gun sales and a ban on ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. Connecticut recently added more than 100 firearms to the state’s assault weapons ban and now requires background checks for private gun sales.
Maryland and New York have passed sweeping new guns laws, and in Washington state, supporters of universal background checks recently announced a statewide campaign to collect 300,000 signatures to put the issue straight to voters.
“There have been significant victories (at the state level). We expect that to continue and we’re not giving up on the federal level,” Everitt said.
John Ridlehuber, a gun dealer from Lott, Texas, a rural hamlet of about 700 people, said NRA members see no room for compromise on new gun restrictions. Gun rights advocates have given up far too much ground over the years, he said.
“We have capitulated in far too many places. We should never give anything up again,” Ridlehuber said. “We’re not the bad guys. We’re the good guys.”
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.