Trump, Cruz rail against gun control at NRA meeting in Texas

Protesters calling for gun control gathered outside the convention in Houston.

May 27, 2022, 8:53 PM

Former President Donald Trump, GOP Sen. Ted Cruz and other speakers at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting on Friday defiantly defended gun rights in the wake of another deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

The problem isn't firearms, they said, it's "evil."

"The monster who committed this crime is pure evil, pure cruelty, pure hatred -- absolute pure hatred," Trump said after reading the names of the victims killed at Robb Elementary School.

"The existence of evil is one of the very best reasons to arm law-abiding citizens," he said.

PHOTO: Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the National Rifle Association annual convention in Houston, on May 27, 2022.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the National Rifle Association annual convention in Houston, on May 27, 2022.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Cruz railed against "elites" calling for gun control, telling the crowd: "It is far easier to slander one's political adversaries and to demand that responsible citizens forfeit their constitutional rights than it is to examine the cultural sickness giving birth to unspeakable acts of evil."

The NRA is forging ahead with its three-day convention in Texas days after 19 young children and two teachers were killed in a mass shooting in the state.

The remarks delivered Friday were on track with what Republican politicians have said all week as Democrats and activists press for reforms to existing gun laws. Mental health advocates have pushed back on the rhetoric citing mental illness as the culprit, stating those with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.

The solutions offered at the NRA event spanned from increased funding for police departments, fortifying schools with armed security and increasing funding for mental health services.

"Let's focus on what works: stopping the bad guys, imprisoning violent criminals and protecting our vulnerable," Cruz said.

PHOTO: Senator Ted Cruz speaks at the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the National Rifle Association annual convention in Houston, on May 27, 2022.
Senator Ted Cruz speaks at the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the National Rifle Association annual convention in Houston, on May 27, 2022.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Large crowds of protesters calling for gun control gathered outside the George R. Brown Convention Center, where much of the programming is being held. The convention center is located some 270 miles away from the killings Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

PHOTO: Gun rights activists and supporters protest outside the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center, on May 27, 2022, in Houston.
Gun rights activists and supporters protest outside the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center, on May 27, 2022, in Houston.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Children held photos of the victims of the Uvalde shooting as they participated in a moment of silence outside the NRA gathering.

PHOTO: Children holding photos of victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting, participate in a minute of silence outside the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center, on May 27, 2022, in Houston.
Children holding photos of victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting, participate in a minute of silence outside the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center, on May 27, 2022, in Houston.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre kicked off the forum Friday by stating the group is with the community of Uvalde and the rest of the nation "in prayer."

"It's not right," LaPierre said. "It should never happen. If we as a nation were capable of legislating evil out of the hearts and minds of criminals who commit these heinous acts, we would have done it a long time ago."

LaPierre then quickly turned to the issue of gun rights, stating it's "time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions."

"And that's why we the NRA will never ever stop fighting for the right of the innocent and the law-abiding to defend themselves against the evil criminal element that plagues our society," he said.

His remarks were followed by a moment of silence.

PHOTO: CEO and Executive vice president of the National Rifle Association  Wayne LaPierre prepares to speak at the George R. Brown Convention Center during the National Rifle Association annual convention on May 27, 2022, in Houston.
CEO and Executive vice president of the National Rifle Association Wayne LaPierre prepares to speak at the George R. Brown Convention Center during the National Rifle Association annual convention on May 27, 2022, in Houston.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who was to appear in person, but instead gave a news conference at the same time in Uvalde, addressed NRA members in a short, taped video message, in which he continued to argue that mental illness is to blame for the tragedy, not guns.

"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 in peaceful communities," the governor said. "In Uvalde, the gunman committed a felony under Texas law before he even pulled the trigger. It's a felony to possess a firearm on school premises, but that did not stop him."

Abbott's lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, canceled his appearance on Friday. Patrick said while he's a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and an NRA member, he wouldn't want his appearance to "bring any additional pain or grief to the families and all those suffering in Uvalde." Musician Lee Greenwood also dropped out "out of respect" for those in mourning."

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson also gave speeches at the NRA event.

Notably, no firearms were allowed inside the assembly hall of the convention center on Friday due to Trump's appearance. The NRA said the ban is enforced by the Secret Service.

The NRA and other gun rights organizations are under renewed scrutiny amid a string of deadly public shootings. Earlier this month, 10 people were killed in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, in what law enforcement described as a racially motivated attack by a suspected white supremacist. Days later, a gunman opened fire at a California church, killing one person and wounding five others; authorities have said that alleged shooter was driven by the political tension between China and Taiwan.

In Uvalde this week, 17 people were injured in addition to the 21 who were fatally shot, authorities said. A motive in that attack is not yet clear.

"When in God's name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?" President Joe Biden said after the latest tragedy. Democrats have limited options to pursue gun regulations given they don't have the votes needed to squash a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate. The GOP has consistently said they won't back sweeping changes to the law, citing their views on the Second Amendment, but some Republican lawmakers support more incremental measures such as expanding background checks.

How influential is the NRA today?

The NRA has been mired in internal strife in recent years. In 2019, it parted ways with its longtime marketing partner, Ackerman McQueen, and lobbyist Chris Cox.

Then last year, the group filed for bankruptcy and tried to reorganize in Texas after New York Attorney General Letitia James raised allegations of financial misconduct. The NRA said then that James had launched an "unconstitutional, premeditated attack" and that it was "committed to good governance."

A federal judge later dismissed the bankruptcy case, leaving the group to face James' lawsuit. She is seeking to recoup money that was allegedly misspent as well as ban NRA President Wayne LaPierre and other executives from serving in the leadership of any not-for-profit organization conducting business in the state.

Amid its scandals, the NRA spent $25 million less in the 2020 election cycle than it did in 2016, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit tracking data on campaign finance and lobbying. The gun group spent more than $54 million across federal races during Trump's first campaign, in 2016, compared to $29 million four years later.

In the 2022 election cycle so far, the NRA has spent less than $10,000 on independent expenditures, OpenSecrets Executive Director Sheila Krumholz told ABC News.

PHOTO: In this Feb. 28, 2020 file photo National Rifle Association (NRA) signage stands in the exhibition hall during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md.
In this Feb. 28, 2020 file photo National Rifle Association (NRA) signage stands in the exhibition hall during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

But Adam Winkler, a University of California, Los Angeles, law professor who specializes in gun policy, told ABC News the NRA is still a powerful political force after decades of shaping public attitudes on firearms.

"The NRA has been immensely successful at persuading Americans that if you're feeling in danger, you should have a gun," Winkler said.

Gun sales hit a record high of 21 million in 2020, driven in part by first-time purchases. In 2021, sales hit their second highest number at 19 million.

The NRA has also been aided by a large constituency of very strong pro-gun voters who are "fighting for the same vision of gun rights," Winkler said. Other organizations, such as Gun Owners of America, are stepping in to fill any gaps.

OpenSecrets reported last week that gun rights groups spent a record $15.8 million on lobbying in 2021 -- more than five times the amount opposing gun control groups spent. The NRA alone spent $4.4 million on lobbying, up from its $2.2 million the year before.

"The gun rights forces in America are so powerful that another school shooting with an obscene number of deaths will likely not lead to significant new federal gun laws," Winkler said.

ABC News' Monica Escobedo contributed to this report.

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