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Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday he was not sure whether he would attend the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston this week, which will take place days after a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at a Uvalde elementary school on Tuesday.
“As far as future plans are concerned, listen, I’m living moment-to-moment right now,” he said when asked about the convention during a news conference updating the public on the shooting. “My heart, my head and my body are in Uvalde right now, and I’m here to help the people who are hurting.”
Abbott, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are scheduled to attend the event but none of their offices have commented on their attendance since the shooting unfolded on Tuesday. Former President Donald Trump, who is scheduled to speak, said Wednesday he still plans to attend.
“America needs real solutions and real leadership in this moment, not politicians and partisanship,” Trump said in a statement. “That’s why I will keep my longtime commitment to speak in Texas at the NRA Convention and deliver an important address to America. In the meantime, we all continue to pray for the victims, their families and our entire nation – we are all in this together.”
On Wednesday, the NRA issued a statement expressing its deepest sympathies for the victims of “this horrific and evil crime” and saluting the school officials and first responders who responded to the shooting.
“Although an investigation is underway and facts are still emerging, we recognize this was the act of a lone, deranged criminal,” the statement read. “As we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”
The group did not immediately respond to questions about whether it would alter plans for the meeting or if any more speakers had withdrawn from the event. After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, the NRA opted to scale down its convention which was scheduled to happen days later and a few miles away.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn was slated to speak at the convention but his team told news outlets on Tuesday the Republican had notified the NRA he would not be attending because of an “unexpected change in his schedule” that now required him to be in Washington for personal reasons.
U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, was also slated to speak but is now touring the reopened U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, which had shut its doors prior to the start of the Russian invasion of the country in February. Crenshaw plans to visit with members of the Ukrainian parliament to discuss the $40 billion in aid Congress approved for Ukraine. A spokesperson for Crenshaw’s office said the congressman will not be back in time to speak for the NRA convention.
Neither lawmaker cited the shooting as a reason for their withdrawal from the event, but gun control advocates and Democrats are calling on Texas lawmakers to withdraw from the convention.
“Governor [Greg] Abbott, if you have any decency, you will immediately withdraw from this weekend’s NRA convention and urge them to hold it anywhere but Texas,” Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee for governor said in a statement on social media Tuesday night.
The speaking engagement leaves Texas Republicans in a tricky political situation. The public is still reeling from the brutal killing at a small-town elementary school, the first major event of this kind in Texas since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. But the Texas GOP is closely tied to the NRA and its advocacy for loose gun ownership policies.
After a shooting at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 that killed 23 people, Patrick, a staunch ally of the NRA, appeared ready to take on the gun rights group, saying he was “willing to take an arrow” to require background checks for stranger-to-stranger gun sales.
“I’m a solid NRA guy,” he told The Dallas Morning News at the time, “but not expanding the background check to eliminate the stranger to stranger sale makes no sense to me and … most folks.”
But when the opportunity to push the policy through came in the 2021 legislative session, Patrick abandoned any support for the plan, instead helping the Legislature loosen the requirements for carrying a handgun in public.
The state allows people with concealed handgun licenses to carry handguns into public university buildings in Texas. Last year, the Legislature passed a controversial law that allowed people to carry a handgun in public without a license or training. The bill had been beaten back many times before because of public safety concerns.
But gun advocates have exerted considerable pressure on GOP officials to loosen gun laws. And the relationship between state leaders and the NRA is symbiotic.
In 2021, the NRA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in a bid to reorganize the nonprofit in gun-friendly Texas in what experts saw as a move to avoid an aggressive lawsuit being pursued by the attorney general in New York. Prosecutors there accused the NRA of fraudulently using the group’s funds for decades and aimed to put it out of business.
A bankruptcy judge ultimately dismissed the NRA’s case, but not before Abbott enthusiastically welcomed the group to move to Texas.
“Welcome to Texas — a state that safeguards the 2nd Amendment,” he tweeted.
Texas’ gun culture is rooted in many of the state’s responses to mass shootings. In 1991, a gunman killed 23 people at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen. Suzanna Hupp, one of the shooting’s survivors who lost both of her parents in the killing, later said she had left her .38 revolver in her car because she feared she would lose her chiropractor’s license if she was caught carrying it in a restaurant. Her testimony pushed the Legislature to pass a law that allowed Texans to carry concealed weapons. She was later elected to the Texas House in 1996.
In 2017, another gunman killed 27 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. After the shooting, Stephen Willeford, a resident and former NRA firearms instructor, engaged the shooter in a firefight and pursuit, which ended with the shooter crashing his vehicle. Police eventually found the shooter with three gunshot wounds, including a self-inflicted one to the head.
In recent years, the Legislature has responded to mass shootings by providing money to research mental health problems, which they say is a key factor in the killings. They’ve also pushed to arm more teachers and school officials with weapons to respond to shootings.