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The NRA's annual meeting is underway, with only minor changes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Just a four-hour drive from Uvalde, the National Rifle Association is holding its annual meeting in Houston. The NRA hasn't held the event in three years due to COVID-19, but it faces criticism now that it should have postponed or canceled this meeting because of the mass shooting earlier this week. NPR's Tim Mak is in Houston. Tim, thanks for being with us.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Of course.

SIMON: Former President Donald Trump appeared. What did he say, and what does it mean that he's talking to NRA members?

MAK: Well, he argued for the hardening of every school in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: There should be strong exterior fencing, metal detectors and the use of new technology to make sure that no unauthorized individual can ever enter the school with a weapon.

MAK: The NRA's fundraising and membership have faltered over the years, and it's really struggled to get past infighting, allegations of misconduct, as well as an ongoing lawsuit by the New York attorney general, Letitia James. It's kind of a mistake to think of the NRA's power as coming directly from money, though, although, of course, cash does help in politics. What makes the NRA influential and why Donald Trump wanted to speak to this audience is that its members are eager to mobilize for their legislative and electoral priorities. It's very much his base, and they laughed and cheered him on as he laid out this wide-ranging policy agenda beyond just guns. He spoke about nation building, Ukraine, policing, crime as if he was on the campaign trail.

SIMON: As I guess perhaps he is. Did anyone, NRA members or demonstrators outside, directly address the shooting deaths in Uvalde?

MAK: Almost everyone did, right? And as you can imagine, both sides had pretty dramatically different views. The NRA and its supporters are sidestepping the use of firearms and blaming instead things like mental illness and broken families. I spoke to NRA board member Jay Printz outside the convention hall.

JAY PRINTZ: Everybody wants to blame the guns. It's not the guns. We got an evil problem in this country, and it's based on the way we're raising our kids or not raising our kids. How many places have you seen with families that don't have a mother and a father raising that child?

MAK: There were hundreds of protesters outside the convention hall where this meeting was taking place. I heard demonstrators angrily confront and boo NRA members as they entered the conference. People are obviously extremely angry with their political opponents here.

SIMON: And what did people giving voice to their sentiments outside say they'd like to see happen about mass shootings?

MAK: So while the NRA and its defenders see mass shootings as this social issue, the demonstrators really see it as a political and legislative one. The anti-NRA coalition has become more organized over the past few years, and they've come up with a number of legislative proposals that I'm hearing again and again. That includes things like background checks, red flag laws, the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban. These are just a few of those ideas. Laura Freeney (ph) of Jackson, Miss., told me she had left her home at 4:30 in the morning to get to Houston and protest the NRA convention. She said she had never been to a protest before on gun issues.

LAURA FREENEY: It's just going to keep getting worse. And so I'm trying to do something that I can. So what could I do? - but thought about coming down here to protest against the NRA, since it, you know, tries to loosen every single law and kind of allows everybody to have guns and doesn't think about common sense.

MAK: She was just one of a number of protesters who told me that the shootings in Texas this week and Buffalo before that were tipping points that stirred them to political action on this issue for the very first time.

SIMON: NPR's Tim Mak in Houston, thanks so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.