HOUSTON (AP) — National Rifle Association leaders told members Saturday that the fight against gun control legislation is far from over, with battles yet to come in Congress and next year's midterm elections, but they vowed that none in the organization will ever have to surrender their weapons.
Proponents of gun control also asserted that they are in their fight for the long haul and have not been disheartened by last month's defeat of a bill that would have expanded background checks for gun sales.
The debate over gun control legislation has reached a fever pitch in the wake of December's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 first-graders and six educators were killed. The expanded background checks bill supported by President Barack Obama and other lawmakers in response to the Connecticut shooting failed to pass in the Senate.
During a fiery and defiant speech Saturday, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, the public face of the NRA, said the "political and media elites" have tried to use Sandy Hook and other recent shootings "to blame us, to shame us, to compromise our freedom for their agenda." He said the proposed bill "got the defeat that it deserved" and that the measure would do nothing to prevent the next mass shooting.
"We will never surrender our guns, never," LaPierre told several thousand people during the organization's annual member meeting, which is part of the yearly NRA convention being held this weekend in Houston. More than 70,000 NRA members are expected to attend the three-day convention, which began Friday. Acres of displays of rifles, pistols, swords and hunting gear could be found inside the convention hall.
James Porter, the incoming NRA president, said Obama's gun control efforts have created a "political spontaneous combustion" that has prompted millions of Americans to become first-time gun owners and created a national outrage that will manifest itself in next year's midterm elections.
"The Senate and House are up for grabs," Porter said during Saturday's meeting. "We can direct this massive energy of spontaneous combustion to regain the political high ground. We do that and Obama can be stopped."
LaPierre said the NRA now has a record 5 million members, but he urged for increased membership and added that it "must be 10 million strong" in its battle against gun control.
Meanwhile, across the street from the convention, advocates of expanded background checks and other gun control measures vowed to continue their fight.
Kellye Bowman of the Houston chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a national grassroots effort promoting gun control that was started after the Sandy Hook shooting, said her organization was not discouraged by last month's failure of the gun control bill. She said its defeat actually increased her group's membership.
Bowman, who described herself as a fifth generation Texan who grew up shooting guns, said her group's primary focus now is meeting with legislators and supporting those who agree with their efforts and using the ballot box to remove those that don't.
"We can turn any mom into an activist. They need to start listening to us," said Bowman, who was among more than 60 protesters who had gathered Saturday afternoon across the street from the convention.
Many of the protesters held up signs that read: "Texans For Smart Gun Regulations" and "90% Want A Background Check," a reference to recent polls that have shown that up to 90 percent of Americans are in favor of expanded background checks.
Another of the protesters, Caleb Rogers, 33, a residential appraiser from Houston, said he doesn't believe the NRA is unstoppable.
"I think their time will come when they have to listen to common sense and do what's right for the country," he said. "I think someday, maybe not today or tomorrow or the next decade, but someday we'll get there, where there is a little common sense about what kinds of weapons we want on the streets."
Gun control supporters have promised to keep pressing the issue and have made significant strides at the state level, including passing new restrictions on firearms in Colorado and Connecticut.
LaPierre implored lawmakers to direct their efforts at enforcing current federal gun laws and sending violent criminals who break them to prison, instead of focusing on new gun control legislation.
But LaPierre added the NRA is preparing for "round two" of the gun control fight.
"They are coming after us with a vengeance to destroy us and every ounce of our freedom," he said. "It's up to us, every single gun owner, every American to get to work right now and meet them head-on."
Follow Juan A. Lozano at http://www.twitter.com/juanlozano70 .
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.