Protesters’ anguished shouts fail to dampen gun enthusiasm at NRA convention in Houston

HOUSTON — On Friday morning, less than 72 hours after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, thousands of gun owners gathered four hours away in Houston to defend and celebrate the types of laws that made it possible for a teenager to purchase a pair of AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles days after his 18th birthday.

Some came to the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting — part trade show, part right-wing political rally — wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the same type of gun that the shooter reportedly used on Tuesday morning to fire hundreds of deadly rounds at teachers and fourth graders at Robb Elementary School. 

Inside the convention hall, a man wearing a “Come And Take It” hat held his young daughter on his shoulders as a vendor showed his son how to hold a semiautomatic rifle. Across the street, hundreds of protesters waved signs and shouted at NRA members as they filtered into the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The gun control activists and firearm enthusiasts were separated by a four-lane road, metal barricades and horse-mounted police. But the gap between their views on what happened in Uvalde this week — and what should be done about it — was far greater.

“Shame on you!” Alicia Holder, a 33-year-old college student, shouted at a pair of convention goers. “Kids are dead, and you’re walking in smiling like nothing happened.”

A young protester wears an image of Tess Mata, who was killed in the Uvalde school shooting, outside the NRA meeting.
A young protester wears an image of Tess Mata, who was killed in the Uvalde school shooting, outside the NRA meeting. Allison Dinner for NBC News

A girl who was around the same age as the victims in Uvalde stood holding a piece of cardboard with blood-red handprints stamped over the words “How many more kids?” Another child held an image of one of the Uvalde victims and a sign that read “Am I next?” 

The heartbreak and outrage of the protesters reflected the wave of sorrow and demands for political action on gun control that spread across the country this week as the horror of the Uvalde shooting became clear. 

Alain Cisneros protests outside the annual NRA meeting Friday in Houston.
Alain Cisneros protests outside the annual NRA meeting Friday in Houston. Allison Dinner for NBC News

Alain Cisneros, a 44-year-old community organizer for an immigrant civil rights group, shouted into a bullhorn in Spanish: “Asesinos! Asesinos! Asesinos!” 

Murderers! Murderers! Murderers!

“Because that is what these people are,” Cisneros told a reporter. “The policies they support are what make these horrible tragedies possible.”

Across the street, Troy Tindall, a 54-year-old self-described gun enthusiast, smiled and waved at the protesters. Tindall’s twin 11-year-old boys laughed as they recorded video of the demonstrators.

“Like I was just telling my boys,” Tindall said, “the main purpose of the Second Amendment is not anything other than to protect the other amendments. So without the Second Amendment, the right of the press, the right of free speech, their right to shout at us and protest, that all goes away.”

Asked about how he talked to his sons about Uvalde, Tindall said he’s always been open with them about the ever-present risk of shootings: “You never know what is going to happen, and there’s nothing you can do about that,” he said. “You just have to be able to protect yourself when it does.”

Polling shows that his views, and U.S. gun laws, are out of sync with overall public opinion. Sixty-seven percent of American voters strongly or somewhat support banning assault-style weapons, compared with 25 percent who strongly or somewhat oppose a ban, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted after the Uvalde shooting. 

Young protesters outside the annual NRA meeting in Houston.
Young protesters outside the annual NRA meeting in Houston. Allison Dinner for NBC News

Gaby Diaz, a volunteer with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action and a Houston high school teacher, rejected the idea that there’s no way to stop school shootings other than putting kids through active shooter drills and arming teachers.

“If you’re going to arm teachers, are you going to arm us with AR-15s?” asked Diaz, noting reports that police in Uvalde waited for a tactical team before confronting the shooter.

While NRA members browsed aisles of AR-15 inspired merchandise, authorities in Uvalde revealed troubling new details about the law enforcement response. Police left the shooter alone in classrooms for about an hour as children who were hiding from him frantically dialed 911 for help.

Visitors look at rifles at the annual NRA convention Friday.
Visitors look at rifles at the annual NRA convention Friday. Allison Dinner for NBC News

NRA leaders refused calls to cancel their annual gathering in the wake of the shooting. Several Republican politicians, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, canceled plans to attend the event, but Sen. Ted Cruz and former President Donald Trump carried on with their plans to speak. Abbott instead sent a video address.

His Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, spoke at a rally outside the convention and had a message for the NRA members inside.

“You are not our enemies; we are not yours,” said O’Rourke, days after interrupting Abbott’s press conference in Uvalde to demand that he support new gun control policies. “We extend our hand open and unarmed in a gesture of peace and fellowship to welcome you to join us to make sure that this no longer happens in this country. But the time for you to respond and to join us is now.”

Beto O'Rourke speaks to protesters Friday.
Beto O’Rourke speaks to protesters Friday. Allison Dinner for NBC News

Dennis Normoyle, a 78-year-old Vietnam veteran and longtime NRA member, didn’t think much of O’Rourke message. 

“Who, that idiot?” he said.

Normoyle, who came to the convention wearing a red Trump 2020 baseball cap, said the killings in Uvalde made the NRA’s meeting even more urgent. Echoing a common Republican talking point that has been refuted by researchers, Normoyle said the best way to prevent deadly shootings is to have more, not fewer, armed citizens.

“What we need to do,” Normoyle said, “is to put guns in every school in the country.”

A moment later, a group of mothers marched past the convention hall across the street. They held up pictures of the children killed in Uvalde and chanted, “Protect our kids, not guns.” 

Between them, they carried a single child-sized casket.