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Former President Trump speaks at the NRA convention in Houston

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Just days after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the NRA is holding its annual convention in Houston amid criticism that it is inappropriate to continue doing so after one of the most deadly school shootings in U.S. history. The NRA's most devoted followers gathered at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, where they were greeted by hundreds of anti-NRA protesters across the street, loudly objecting to the presence of the gun group.

NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from Houston. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: OK. So in the wake of what happened in Uvalde this week, what is the NRA saying at their convention today?

MAK: Well, speakers repeatedly called the shootings a tragedy. And what they did was they presented this problem in moral terms, arguing that the school shooting was an act of evil and that legislation can't fix evil. Here's what Texas Governor Greg Abbott said.

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GREG ABBOTT: And also, remember this - there are thousands of laws on the books across the country that limit the owning or using of firearms, laws that have not stopped madmen from carrying out evil acts on innocent people and peaceful communities.

MAK: NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre drew applause from the audience as he talked about spending more money, for example, on police departments. And LaPierre also said this.

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WAYNE LAPIERRE: We also need to fully fund and fix our nation's broken mental health system. We need to put violent felons in prison where they belong.

MAK: I spoke to a number of NRA members here in Houston attending the conference. Chris French (ph) was one of those members, and he had an absolutist view of gun rights; that there should be no limits to the right to bear arms. He also said that while the shootings were regrettable and that what he was saying was difficult to say, he believes that mass shootings are the price the country pays for what he believes is the Second Amendment's hedge against tyranny.

CHRIS FRENCH: Unfortunately, you know, there's a cost of doing business in certain aspects of things.

MAK: Of course, there were plenty of demonstrators who disagree.

CHANG: Right. So what were those protesters saying outside the convention hall?

MAK: Well, the NRA had framed this mass shooting or mass shootings in general as a - moral issues - as a moral issue. The demonstrators said it was a legal and legislative one. Legislation and change, not thoughts and prayers, read one sign. The demonstrators were loud, boisterous. Many of them were extremely angry. Some cited the recent shootings in the state. Others cited Buffalo as the reason why they decided to show up. Some traveled for hours from outside of Houston, even outside of the state, to protest.

I saw demonstrators confront NRA members as they entered the convention, mocking them or calling them names like baby killers. Shouts of, their blood is on your hands, and, you should be ashamed of yourselves, could also be heard. This is how NRA members, easily identifiable by their conference passes hanging on their lanyards, were greeted by demonstrators.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD BOOING AND BANGING DRUMS)

MAK: No shortage of middle fingers were exchanged between the two sides, and they were separated by metal fencing but occasionally confronted each other in person as NRA members left the conference.

CHANG: Wow. So, Tim, I mean, what is next, you think, on the issue of gun control? - because the NRA, it's been weakened politically by infighting at the organization, which you've reported on. I imagine that that could create an opening for some movement on gun legislation.

MAK: Well, the last two years have seen a Democratic-held Senate, House and White House. And the NRA, like you mentioned, has been plagued by scandal. Fundraising is down, stagnant figures for membership. They've had investigations into them, a lawsuit by the New York attorney general. And despite this, no gun legislation has been passed and signed into law by the NRA's opponents.

However, I did notice this - person after person I spoke to here in Houston told me they had never attended a protest about gun issues before, but the events of the recent week had spurred them to action in a new way.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tim Mak reporting from the NRA annual meeting in Houston. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.