HOUSTON - In speech after speech at the National Rifle Association's annual convention this weekend, its top leaders and political allies blasted President Barack Obama and other gun control advocates, warned against "all-out, historic attacks" on the constitutional right to possess firearms. Not surprisingly perhaps, the convention theme was "Stand and Fight."
Praising the NRA's membership for helping defeat a bipartisan Senate proposal to expand background checks for gun buyers last month, Wayne R. LaPierre, the association's executive vice president and principal spokesman, declared Saturday that the Senate fight had helped swell the association's membership to a record 5 million people.
The Senate bill "wouldn't have prevented Newtown, couldn't have prevented Tucson or Aurora and won't prevent the next tragedy," LaPierre told a cheering throng of NRA members at the convention center here. He chastised the Obama administration for not prosecuting gun crimes, particularly in his hometown, Chicago, which LaPierre and other NRA leaders repeatedly invoked as "the deadliest city in America."
LaPierre's voice dripped with disdain and outrage as he warned that the president, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and their supporters in the "media elite" were "conspiring right now, regrouping, planning, organizing" to exploit "the next horrific crime."
Gun control advocates have long questioned the NRA's membership numbers and accused it of using bombastic oratory to raise money and cower political opponents, most of them Democrats.
Indeed, the lineup of speakers at Friday's "Leadership Forum" looked like the early season race card for the Republican 2016 presidential primaries, featuring Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate, as well as video appearances by Rep. Paul Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker, both of Wisconsin.
"Somehow they managed to make the NRA the victims of the Newtown shootings," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, which advocates for stricter gun control. "I think the average American would be shocked by their language."
Among the protesters was Patricia Maisch, a survivor of the mass shooting in Arizona where former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was injured. "I'm here to not let the issue go away," she said. "I don't think people are going to let that happen this time."
Yet beneath the politically charged surface of the convention, it was clear that many of the tens of thousands of NRA members had come for things other than speeches. There were seminars on competitive shooting, firearms law and hunting, including "Advanced sausage processing, BBQ and smoke cooking techniques," taught by Brad Lockwood.