By WILL WEISSERT and TOM DAVIES (Associated Press)
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Last year it was Uvalde. Now it’s Nashville and Louisville. For the second year in a row, the National Rifle Association is holding its annual convention within days of mass shootings that shook the nation.
The three-day gathering kicked off Friday with thousands of the organization’s most active members at Indianapolis’ convention center attracting a bevy of top Republican presidential candidates — enough that it could help shape the early part of next year’s GOP primary race.
It illustrates the stark reality that such shootings have become enough of the fabric of American life that the NRA can no longer schedule around them. Nor does it really want to: The convention falls on the second anniversary of the mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis that killed nine people.
In brief remarks, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre didn’t mention the recent mass shootings.
“Gun-hating politicians should never go to bed unafraid of what this association and all of our millions of members can do to their political careers,” LaPierre said.
But Randy Conner, a pistol and rifle instructor for the NRA from Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, expressed the sentiment of many attendees when he said in an interview that blaming firearms for mass shootings is misguided: “A gun is not dangerous until somebody picks it up,” he said.
“No one wants to see the violence you see in schools and stuff today,” Conner said. “But I don’t think taking the guns away from ordinary citizens is going to change any of that at all.”
Former President Donald Trump will be speaking at the gathering, his first public appearance since being arrested and arraigned in New York last week on felony charges stemming from a hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels during his 2016 campaign. His Secret Service protection means attendees can’t have guns at the convention.
Also speaking Friday was Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, who is considering his own 2024 White House bid — the first time they have addressed the same campaign event on the same day since their estrangement following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Pence, who was met by scattered boos before his NRA speech, has skipped a number of conservative gatherings in recent years, including the Conservative Political Action Conference as well as the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual gathering after he was booed and heckled there in 2021.
The former vice president noted shootings at a Louisville, Kentucky, bank that killed five people this week and at a Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 27 that killed three 9-year-olds and three staff members. But he said, “We don’t need gun control. We need crime control.”
“We don’t need lectures about the liberties of law-abiding citizens,” Pence said. “We need solutions to protect our kids.”
Instead of fewer guns, Pence called for more institutions for the mentally ill and federal funding for armed school officers. He also called for a federal death penalty statute with expedited appeal to punish the perpetrators of mass shootings more quickly.
“To Joe Biden and the gun control extremists, I say: Give up on your pipe dreams of gun confiscation. Stop endangering our lives with gun bans,” Pence said.
Two GOP Trump critics — former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who announced his 2024 campaign after news of the former president’s indictment broke, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who may launch his own White House bid — are also speaking.
Offering video messages are former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who began her 2024 campaign in February; South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who announced a presidential exploratory committee this week, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen as a top rival to Trump even though he’s yet to jump into the race.
Pain over the Louisville and Nashville shooting rampages has crossed party lines. Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear talked about having a friend killed in the Louisville shooting, while Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said he had friends killed during the Nashville school attack.
The NRA convention’s tone was as defiant as last year, when the group held its convention in Houston just three days after the massacre of 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school across Texas in the town of Uvalde.
Further overlapping with recent tragedy, Pence and some of the other speakers plan to follow up their NRA speeches by traveling to Nashville to meet with top GOP donors gathered there.
“Every significant national Republican, every Republican that’s thrown their hat in the ring to run for president, is showing up this weekend to pledge their undying loyalty to the NRA and the gun lobby,” said Democratic Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who championed bipartisan legislation that passed last year and imposed some new federal gun restrictions after the Uvalde shooting. “Our kids are being hunted, and the NRA’s business model is to give aid to the hunters.”
Indeed, support for gun rights among Republican voters remains higher than for voters overall. Some 56% of voters in last fall’s midterm elections said they want to see stricter nationwide gun laws, compared with just 28% of Republicans, according to AP VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of the electorate.
About half of Republicans said gun laws should be left as they are.
Also on display Friday was the resurgence of the NRA and the key role it is poised to play in next year’s presidential race — in a stark departure from 2020. Back then, the organization was trying to regroup and saw its membership and political spending decline following serious legal and financial turmoil — including a failed bankruptcy effort, a class action lawsuit and a fraud investigation.
Trump, meanwhile, has a contradictory history on guns. The NRA was a key backer of his 2016 campaign, spending some $30 million to support a candidate who sometimes mentioned carrying his own gun and vowed to eliminate gun-free zones in schools and on military bases. Trump also pledged to establish a national right to carry.
But, as the country reeled from a series of mass shootings, Trump’s administration banned bump stocks, which were used in a 2017 attack on a Las Vegas country music concert that killed 60 people. After the Parkland school shooting in Florida the following year, Trump urged congressional Republicans to expand background checks and proposed seizing guns from mentally ill people.
He also suggested raising the minimum age to buy assault rifles from 18 to 21, and suggested he was open to a conversation about reviving assault weapons bans. After later meeting with the NRA, however, Trump abandoned his push, instead focusing on arming teachers and making schools more secure.
Donna Alberts, who traveled around 600 miles (965 kilometers) from Greenbriar, Arkansas, for the convention, said nothing could sway her vote for Trump in 2024.
“He’s a good man,” Alberts said, “and he does what he says he’s going to do, and he loves this country.”
Gun rights advocates continue to celebrate a Supreme Court decision last June that said Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense. That opened the door to a wave of challenges to firearm restrictions across the country by changing the test that lower courts had long used for evaluating challenges to firearm restrictions.
Amid upheaval in the wake of the ruling, courts have declared unconstitutional laws including federal measures designed to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and defendants under felony indictment, as well as a ban on possessing guns with the serial number removed. Courts are also considering challenges to state bans on AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles.
Attempting to counter gun rights advocates has been an ascendant gun safety movement that has poured tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns. That includes Moms Demand Action, which was among a coalition of groups that derided Friday’s speeches as “a cattle call of far-right” presidential candidates.
Weissert reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York, Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston, Arleigh Rodgers in Indianapolis and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.
Rodgers is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/arleighrodgers.