The bell tolled at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) annual meeting in Houston on Friday night. As former President Donald Trump intoned the names of the Uvalde massacre victims – 19 children aged between eight and 10, and two teachers who made heroic efforts to save them – the sound of a bell was played to commemorate the memory of each of them.
That it sounded like the doorbell heralding the arrival of the Avon Lady in the TV commercials of the 60s and 70s was testament only to the NRA’s rushed need to find a suitable sound-effect.
It cannot have been easy pressing ahead with the biggest annual confabulation of America’s most powerful gun rights group just 72 hours after a mass shooting a mere 280 miles away. But with 55,000 delegates descending on Houston, the NRA chiefs decided the show must go on.
The NRA’s financial muscle ensured that very few figures dropped out. After spending more than $20m dollars to influence the political process in 2020 alone, the appearance of most speakers on the bill could be reliably guaranteed.
But there were some last-minute changes. Following the revelations of Tuesday’s botched police operation in Uvalde, Texas Governor Greg Abbott sent a taped message to the conference so that he could continue dealing with the implosion of his state’s ironically-named “Department of Public Safety”.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas announced a “scheduling conflict” would prevent him from speaking at the “Celebration of the Second Amendment”, but insisted he informed the NRA of his decision days before 18-year-old Salvador Ramos entered the Robb Elementary School with murder in mind.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas – who has received more NRA cash than any other politician in Washington – told the gathering “there are no words to describe a monster who enters a school and murders little children”.
Minutes later, the words no longer eluded him. The crimes in Uvalde were “manifest evil” committed by a “psychopath” whom Cruz then called a “son of a bitch”.
The delegates lapped it up, enthralled by the full-throated defence of gun rights that each podium speaker espoused.
Several, including Cruz, argued mass shootings in America are connected to a breakdown of the country’s traditions. The perpetrators, he claimed, are “isolated from human contact, living virtual lives in the absence of community, faith and love”.
Mass shootings, he insisted, have nothing to do with the ability of a Texan lad to celebrate his 18th birthday – as Ramos did – by purchasing two assault rifles over-the-counter.
Rather, the cause of the crisis relates to “broken families, absent fathers, declining church attendance, social media bullying, violent video games and chronic isolation”. He also added prescription drugs and opioid abuse to the list, just for good measure.
Though Trump himself has called for tougher background checks and proposing restrictions on the sale of assault rifles, he nonetheless assured the NRA faithful that President Joe Biden and the Democrats are engaged in a “grotesque effort… to shift blame away from villains who commit mass murder, and place it on innocent citizens who… belong to our wonderful NRA”.
He claimed school shootings only kicked off in America with the 1999 attack on Columbine High School in Colorado that took the lives of 12 students and one teacher.
Cruz maintained that “when we were growing up, this kind of thing didn’t happen”, which seems curious since he was already nine years old when The Boomtown Rats were singing “I Don’t Like Mondays”, their hit about a 1979 school shooting in San Diego.
Trump is, however, offering a detailed plan to try and halt school shootings in America, even if it involves ludicrous degrees of contortion because he no longer countenances any restrictions on weapons themselves.
He argues educational institutions require greater security than airports and government buildings, and must be secured by armed guards at all times.
Calling for a top-to-bottom review of security at every school, he said each should have only one point of entry and be surrounded by “strong exterior fencing, metal detectors” and a secure check-in process for anyone seeking to gain access to a school’s perimeter.
He argued classroom doors must be “hardened… lockable from the inside and closed to intruders from the outside”. Teachers should even be trained in the responsible, defensive use of guns and encouraged to “conceal carry” while at work, he added.
“If the United States has $40bn to send to Ukraine, then we must do whatever it takes to keep our children safe at home,” Trump concluded.
Trump’s plan may not address the root of the problem, but Biden has offered no detailed proposal in the days since the racially motivated attack on a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, left 10 dead this month, and the Uvalde attack then took another 21 lives.
“Where is our backbone”, Biden demanded on Tuesday, before urging Congress to “stand up to the power of the gun lobby”.
He said that the Constitution’s second amendment affording Americans “the right to bear arms” is “not absolute”, and spoke wistfully of a 1994 ban on assault weapons that was repealed a decade later.
But as children across the country express fear about returning to classrooms that Republicans now want to turn into armed encampments, voters can only wonder how Biden and his fellow Democrats plan to staunch the bloodshed.