DALLAS — More than 70,000 members of the National Rifle Association are expected in Dallas for the group's annual meeting, which featured an appearance Friday by President Donald Trump who lauded NRA members for "fighting for our beloved Constitution." The meeting is also drawing protests, including by those who have lost loved ones to gun violence.
Those attending the meeting of the nation's most powerful gun lobby are listening to political speeches, checking out the latest firearms, attending gun training courses and socializing. The meeting runs through Sunday.
BIG NAME SPEAKERS
Trump headlined the group's leadership forum on Friday, making his fourth consecutive visit to the NRA meeting. He was joined by Vice President Mike Pence, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn.
"You give your time, your energy, your vote and your voice to stand strong for those sacred rights given to us by God, including the right to self-defense," Trump said in his speech. "And now, thanks to your activism and dedication, you have an administration fighting to protect your Second Amendment."
Trump linked the sanctity of the Constitution's Second Amendment to his party's prospects in the 2018 midterm elections, telling NRA members that "we've got to get Republicans elected."
The speech came as the issue of gun violence has taken on new urgency after one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Student survivors of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 people dead, are now leading a massive national gun control movement. They too are looking to the midterm elections for action.
Pence pointed to the Trump administration's work to address school security and support for changes to the background check system, as well as arming teachers. The vice president said, "The quickest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
Trump has long enjoyed strong backing from the NRA, which spent about $30 million in support of his presidential campaign.
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS HERO
The Texas man who grabbed his rifle and ran barefoot across the street to open fire on a gunman who slaughtered more than two dozen people in a church in the small town of Sutherland Springs was honored by NRA officials.
Stephen Willeford's actions that day in November were also hailed by government officials who spoke during the leadership forum. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said "because (Willeford) had a gun, he saved lives."
Willeford was at his home when his daughter alerted him that she'd heard gunfire at the First Baptist Church nearby. Willeford has said he immediately retrieved his rifle from his weapon safe. Running across the street to the church, he saw 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley and exchanged gunfire.
As Kelley sped away, Willeford ran to a driver in a pickup truck stopped in an intersection, jumped in and the two called 911 and pursued Kelley.
Kelley died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Willeford, an NRA member who has served as an instructor, told those gathered for the NRA's leadership forum, "I took care of my community on that day and I'd do it again."
Those attending the NRA meeting say it's a chance for them to talk to like-minded people.
Lyndie Goggans, 71, of Paris, Tennessee, said she and her husband have been coming to the annual meetings for about 15 years. Goggans says she attends the meetings to see what new guns are available and visit with friends who also attend.
Tara Dixon Engel has made her first trip to a National Rifle Association annual meeting, traveling to Dallas from Florida. The 56-year-old from Merritt Island, Florida, is author of a handgun guide for women and director of strategic development for the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Titusville, Florida.
She says the NRA is necessary to protect the Second Amendment. She says if gun rights go away, "so does freedom of the press, so does freedom of assembly, so does freedom of religion."
Several groups planned to protest during the weekend.
The protesters will include parents who lost children in the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and during other shootings. Teenagers from the Florida high school began pushing for gun restrictions almost immediately after a former student killed 17 people at the school in February. The survivors have led a series of rallies and marches, most notably an event in Washington in March that was the anchor for a national day of protest.
The students have pressed to raise the legal age to purchase a rifle, curb access to AR-style firearms and adopt other gun restrictions. While there's been no movement at the federal level, several states have enacted tougher gun laws.