By Susan Milligan
With the nation in fresh mourning and horror over the shooting deaths of 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school and the delayed response of law enforcement, many Texas politicians and performers skipped the National Rifle Association convention, which began Friday in Houston.
That was not the choice of former President Donald Trump, who headlined the NRA’s opening day meeting and chided those who did not “show up” at the event. He started with an homage to the victims, reading each name as a gong resounded offstage. He then segued into a laundry list of policies to control gun violence – some of which have been undermined as details of Tuesday’s mass shooting have been revealed.
Then, abandoning the Teleprompter, Trump reverted to his post-election campaign mode, complaining about the “rigged” election, trashing President Joe Biden, and serving up a word salad that ranged from personal insults of media and political figures to how a foreign group of people – unclear if he meant Afghans or Chinese – don’t like dogs.
“We witnessed a now familiar parade of cynical politicians seeking to exploit the tears of sobbing families to increase their own power and take away our constitutional rights,” Trump said, slamming Democratic lawmakers who have appealed for universal background checks or more restrictive gun laws.
It is “a grotesque effort by some in our society to use the suffering” of grieving families to advance a gun control agenda, the former president said.
He then ticked off some approaches – such as arming teachers, putting an armed guard in each school and focusing on mental health – that have been common proposals after every mass shooting the country has experienced.
Then, Trump shifted into his comfortable role as a rally-leader, free-associating on topics ranging from gas prices to “inner city” crime, the border wall, China, Russia, and the deficiencies of “the woman with the very red hair now working for MSDNC.” Trump was referring to former White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who will be working for MSNBC in September.
The event was Trump’s first public appearance since the Georgia primaries, when GOP incumbents who earned Trump’s wrath for refusing to overturn the 2020 election results nonetheless defeated Trump’s endorsed challengers.
Clearly reveling in the warm reception he got from the NRA members – none of whom was allowed to carry guns into the event, since Trump is protected by the Secret Service – Trump pledged that the GOP would be back in control of Congress after this year’s elections and back in the “beautiful” White House after the 2024 contest.
As the NRA held its convention, officials 275 miles away in Uvalde struggled to explain why law enforcement failed to enter Robb Elementary School even as children lay dying and calling 911 with pleas for help.
Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said police had wrongly decided that the crisis had moved from an “active shooter” situation to a “barricaded subject” situation. In fact, McCraw said at a news conference where he was hammered over shifting official accounts of how law enforcement had responded, the shooter was continuing his rampage.
“Of course, with the benefit of hindsight … it was the wrong decision. Period,” an emotional McCraw told reporters.
The disclosure that law enforcement failed to enter the school earlier – even as parents on site pleaded with them to act, pushed back or cuffed by police – added another layer of anger and grief over the most deadly school shooting since 2012, when a man killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
And it undercut the first-day assessment by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who praised law enforcement for their “quick response” to the attack, which he said saved lives.
On Friday, a visibly agitated Abbott said he was “misled” about the police response.
“I am livid about what happened. … The information I was given turned out, in part, to be inaccurate, and I am absolutely livid about that,” Abbott said at a news conference.
Reports since then reveal a grisly, wrenching scene, where terrified students waited for help as the shooter, armed with an assault rifle, continued his rampage. One student told of laying on top of a classmate, smearing her blood on her so both would appear dead, to save them both. The girl who was injured died at the hospital from her injuries, raising questions about whether she would have survived if the reaction had been quicker.
Abbott, a vociferous gun rights proponent who last year signed a law allowing people to own guns without a license or training, was originally scheduled to speak at the NRA convention. Thursday night, his office said the governor would instead head to Uvalde, supplying a video speech to show at the NRA meeting.
GOP Sen. John Cornyn, also originally scheduled to appear, pulled out this week, citing scheduling conflicts, while his junior colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz, kept his speaking slot. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a few hours before the convention opened, said that “after prayerful consideration and discussion with NRA officials,” he would not speak as scheduled.
“While a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and an NRA member, I would not want my appearance today to bring any additional pain or grief to the families and all those suffering in Uvalde,” Patrick said in a statement Friday morning.
NRA conventions often draw some sort of protest, but the outrage over the Robb Elementary massacre brought things to a new level. Country music performers, including “American Pie” singer Don McLean, canceled their planned performances at the NRA convention.
Well-known sports figures decried the gun violence and what they called inaction by elected officials to address it. During Thursday evening’s baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays, both teams abandoned their usual game-update tweets for a series of tweets on gun violence.
“The devastating events that took place in Uvalde, Buffalo and countless other communities across our nation are tragedies that are intolerable,” the Yankees said on the team’s official Twitter account, referring to the racist-motivated murder of 10 Black shoppers in Buffalo on May 16.
“Firearms were the leading cause of death for American children and teens in 2020,” both teams tweeted.
Outside the NRA convention, demonstrators gathered outside the building to demand tighter gun laws, with some people carrying photos of the children killed in Uvalde.
Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke – who earlier in the week confronted Abbott and other GOP officials at a press conference on the shooting – spoke, as did David Hogg, who became a gun safety activist after a mass shooting at his Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018.
“Mark my words: We will outlive the NRA,” Hogg told demonstrators.