NRA, GOP Leaders Vow to 'Never Back Away' on Gun Rights at Annual Meeting

A Tea Party senator challenged Joe Biden to a debate at the NRA meeting.

May 3, 2013, 5:10 PM

HOUSTON, May 3, 2013 — -- Big-name Republicans and gun advocates took to the stage in Houston Friday to make it clear that they are not backing down to an administration that seeks stricter gun control measures.

"We will never back away from our resolve to defend our rights and the rights of all law-abiding American gun owners," Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the National Rifle Association, told an audience at the NRA's annual meeting Friday. "We are the law-abiding Americans who believe that liberty is a blessing not bestowed by government but by our creator."

Though seats in the auditorium were filled with NRA members, the speakers on the stage seemed to speak to their opponents and the national media, taking the opportunity to define themselves in their own words.

"The media and the political elites can lie about us and demonize us all they want, but that won't stop us," LaPierre said, "because we who are standing up today in this room and Americans just like us all over this country are standing for who we really are: We are Americans. We are proud of it. And we are going to defend our freedom, we promise you."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry picked up where LaPierre left off, painting a portrait of American gun owners.

"We own guns for sport, for collecting, for self-defense. It's also a way for us to spend time with those that are closest to us, and I know, personally, many of my fondest memories are hunting with my dad," Perry said, his voice growing soft with emotion. "The NRA is about safe, sane and responsible gun ownership: beginning, middle and end of story. That's what the NRA is about."

High-level Republican lawmakers like Perry and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, condemned the failed push from Democrats as far up as the president to pass in the Senate stricter gun control measures like universal background checks following the shooting deaths of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn, in December.

"In the wake of these tragedies, you can almost set your watch by how long it takes for people who hate guns, hate gun owners, to begin another campaign to add a new set of federal gun laws on the books," Perry said. "We all have empathy for the families of those who lost loved ones. Everyone does. But the correct response to these tragedies is not another federal law that criminals will simply ignore anyway."

Some Republicans, like Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, have taken heat in their home states because of their votes against the gun control measures.

But Cruz suggested voters should be going after those senators who did not support a bill he proposed along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. The bill included more funding for school safety, for prosecuting gun crimes and for the mental health system. It would also have increased punishments for straw purchasers and gun traffickers while expanding some rights for gun owners.

"Citizens ought to ask them: Why aren't you willing, why don't you support prosecuting felons and fugitives who try to illegally buy guns," he told the audience. "They talked about violent crime and yet their proposal didn't have one penny for prosecuting felons and fugitives or for prosecuting gun crimes."

He told the audience of gun owners that they were "an army," and that the failure of the Manchin-Toomey amendment backed by President Obama was their "victory" -- "the victory of the American people."

"But let me caution you," he added, "this fight isn't over."

Cruz, who some surmise could be eyeing a presidential run in 2016, called out Vice President Joe Biden for his commitment to bring gun control legislation back to the Senate.

"If he believes the answer to violent crime is not prosecuting felons and fugitives, not prosecuting gun crimes but going after the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens, I would like to invite the vice president to engage in an hour-long conversation and debate," Cruz said.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also spoke to the crowd, telling the thousands gathered, "This is a fight for the future of freedom," and accusing the White House of playing politics with the families from Newtown and other shootings.

"This president [is] flying in grieving parents on Air Force One, making them perpetual backdrops," Palin said.

Some grieving families also came to the NRA convention, telling reporters just across the street from the convention center that they were there to try and reason with NRA members not take away Second Amendment rights.

"Everybody down deep knows what happened in Newtown was something that shouldn't have happened," said Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting, "and I think that anybody that's any sort of a human agrees that we should do whatever we could do to prevent ... tragedies like these from happening again.

"You're never going to stop all of it," Heslin added. "I lost my son. I never really gave much thought about it ever happening to me. I thought it couldn't happen to me. ... It could happen anywhere. It could happen here. It could happen in your hometown. It could happen to you. It could happen to anybody."

Also in Houston was Patricia Maisch, who helped wrestle a fresh magazine of bullets away from Jared Loughner as he tried to reload at the Tucson, Ariz., shooting in January 2011 that killed six and seriously injured others, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. When the Manchin-Toomey amendment failed in the Senate, Maisch let her voice be heard, yelling, "Shame on you!" to the senators from a balcony.

"I went from being sad as I looked over the balcony and saw the senators going on with their lives, shaking hands, chatting -- and it just made me go from sad to mad, and I just decided I had to say something," Maisch said.

"They needed to be shamed," she added. "As far as I'm concerned, the NRA, the gun manufacturers, the gun lobby are saturated in blood, and some of our legislators have blood on their hands."

She said she and others like Heslin are "not just going to go away. We're here to stay."

"I don't know what we can do to convince them that we can have reasonable background checks and still preserve their Second Amendment rights," Maisch said, referring to the NRA leadership. "I don't believe that's what they are interested in. They are just interested in making money."

As for senators like Ayotte and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who are hearing from angry constituents about their no votes, Maisch said she believes "they lost their souls that day."

In the convention hall, members walked around looking at the hundreds of gun exhibits displaying new weaponry and accessories.

Larry Miller and his wife, Philisha, came from nearby Shepherd, Texas, to support "the NRA and activism."

He told ABC News on the exhibition floor he is against universal background checks because there are already "thousands" of gun laws that are not being enforced.

"The one thing common in any homicide is a person," Miller said, "regardless of the inanimate object used. So why do we need more laws when we don't enforce the ones we already have?"

Philisha Miller said she believes "now more than ever, the NRA needs as much support as possible."

"As far as the state of the NRA, I believe they are stronger than ever," Miller said.

Other big-name Republicans at the event included Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

It was the first of the NRA's annual meetings with Birmingham, Ala., attorney, Jim Porter, as president of the organization.

ABC News' Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events