The NRA is now claiming a record five million members, and during its annual convention it framed the gun control debate as stretching beyond gun rights. The group said it is now focused on the future, including next year's midterm elections and beyond. NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports.
HOUSTON -- The National Rifle Association is calling its members to arms for what they say is the next battle in a prolonged war to protect gun rights: the 2014 congressional elections.
"We are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation fight for everything we care about," NRA chief executive and vice president Wayne LaPierre told the gun lobby's membership on the second day of its annual convention. The motto this year is "Stand and Fight."
Gun owners' freedom, LaPierre said, "is on the line and never more on the line than right now and through the 2014 congressional elections."
LaPierre, a legendary figure in the gun-control wars, has been leading the charge against the first sustained push for new gun laws in nearly two decades -- sparked by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and 6 educators were killed.
Last month, a bill that would have expanded background checks to gun show and Internet sales failed in the Senate. Democrats couldn't get 60 votes for the compromise proposal, with an overwhelming number of Republicans voting "no."
There were Democrats who opposed it, too: Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, both up for reelection in 2014, as well as freshman Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Sen. Max Baucus voted against it, and announced his retirement just days later.
It was a lobbying victory that even the organization's president acknowledged seemed far-fetched in the emotionally charged post-Newtown era, when gun-control advocates were angling for much stiffer laws, such as bans on so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Those measures went down too -- and in much more overwhelming fashion than the hard-fought background checks.
At the convention, outgoing NRA leader David Keene called the defeat of background checks "quite an accomplishment -- an accomplishment that few of us would have predicted back in January."
'Wall of Guns' raffle
Two floors below the speakers' hall, stalls showcasing guns, ammunition and firearms accessories from more than 500 retailers were spread out across nearly nine acres of space. One retailer hawked antique guns from the Civil War era -- a Colt revolver was on sale for nearly $5,000. Another company had a simulated shooting range. And Cabela's, the sporting goods store, sponsored a "Wall of Guns" raffle.
Wandering through the exhibits were, the NRA claims, more than 70,000 attendees from across the country. The group said it expected record attendance and boasted that it now had more than 5 million members overall.
While polls show overwhelming numbers of Americans support broader background checks, the NRA members at the Houston convention largely didn't share that view.
"Why should we pay through extra legislation, through extra hassle to be a law-abiding citizen?" said Martin Baker, a first-time convention attendee from Winfield, Kan.
"You're not going to ever stop [gun violence] with a band-aid," said Larry Alders, 64, who has been an NRA member since he was 16.
In his speech, LaPierre linked the gun-control debate to the aftermath of the Boston bombings, arguing that as police searched for an armed suspect in a place where guns are heavily regulated, residents were sheltered in place with no means to defend themselves.
“How many Bostonians wished they had a gun two weeks ago?" LaPierre asked the crowd. It was the first time the NRA connected the Boston bombing with the gun control debate.
NBC's Kasie Hunt reports from Houston, Texas, on what's been said at this year's National Rifle Association convention.
A day earlier, a parade of conservative politicians -- including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- assailed Obama and cast the fight over gun control as part of a broader culture war.
"This is about what kind of people we are and what kind of country we want to be," said Palin, who stood at the podium in a black-and-pink t-shirt featuring moose antlers and the slogan "women hunt." Cruz bragged about his filibuster of gun legislation and received a standing ovation. Back in the Senate, even his GOP colleagues had urged him and others who joined him not to be too public in their protests.
Fight isn't over
Across the street from the convention hall, a handful of protestors stood in a nearby park and read the names of 4,000 victims of gun violence. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, helped organize gun control supporters to attend the convention -- including two relatives Newtown victims.
"My kids safety trumps your gun rights," read one sign.
Bloomberg, who's spending millions on ads promoting gun control, was himself a frequent target at the convention. LaPierre labeled him a "national nanny."
There was only one thing the two sides could agree on: the fight over guns isn't over.
"I am in this for the long haul," said Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son Jesse was killed in Newtown. On Friday, he said, he had a long phone conversation with Pryor, the Arkansas senator, urging him to change his "no" vote if a background check bill comes up again.
The NRA, meanwhile, showcased the next generation. "Our future depends on young NRA members,” said Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist.
The youngest lifetime NRA member in attendance? Three-year-old Elaia Wagen, whose adoptive parents said her grandfather paid the $1,000 that it takes to buy the membership.
"Being a member of the NRA,” her mother, Brook Wagen, said, “for me and my daughter -- and for my sons -- is teaching them they have to protect their freedoms."
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