Houston Chronicle

NRA sets stage for fiery debate

Backers of constituti­onal carry uplifted, but critics not swayed

- By Mike Ward

DALLAS — National Rifle Associatio­n members aren’t about to go on the defensive as public support grows for new gun regulation­s in wake of continued mass shootings across America.

In fact, some are ready to go on the offensive with a new push to make firearms even more accessible.

As thousands of Second Amendment supporters and protesters alike stream into Big D for Friday’s first full day of action at the group’s annual meeting, some members say the time is right to intensify efforts in the Texas Legislatur­e for a constituti­onal carry law that would make it legal to carry weapons without any government permit.

“The issues that are out there right now make this a good year to move ahead with constituti­onal carry in Texas,” said Cedar Park office manager Jared Ross, a staunch NRA member who insists that the spate of

“It seems strategica­lly smart for the NRA to be having their annual meeting in Texas.” Brandon Rottinghau­s, UH political scientist

mass shootings — especially the church massacre in Sutherland Springs that killed 26 people and injured 20 others last November showcases the importance of the Second Amendment.

Constituti­onal carry legislatio­n will be on the agenda in Austin when Texas lawmakers hold their next regular session beginning in January. The Oklahoma Legislatur­e this week passed a constituti­onal carry bill that is now awaiting Gov. Mary Fallin’s signature; she has not said whether she will sign it.

Oklahoma state Sen. Nathan Dahm, the Republican who drafted the bill, hailed passage in a Thursday appearance on Fox News, saying lawmakers there have been “fighting for years” to pass it. Responding to critics who argue that the legislatio­n is dangerous, Dahm said the truth is that Americans’ second amendment rights are far too frequently “infringed upon.”

“There is not another right that requires people to get training and licensing in order to exercise that right,” Dahm said.

Eleven other states already have passed constituti­onal carry bills, and advocates are eager for Texas to join the list next year.

Calling for new restrictio­ns

But Texans who want more gun regulation­s are just as adamant, like Laura McMillen, an Austin mother of two who plans to join a protest by Mom’s Demand Action for Gun Sense calling for new restrictio­ns on gun purchases to curb mass shootings at schools and other public places.

“With the terrible tragedies in Parkland (Fla.) and Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, the time is now to close some big loopholes and bring some common sense to our access to guns in America,” she said.

McMillen and others pushing for more regulation say public sentiment — even in staunchly conservati­ve Texas — is on their side more than ever.

Last month, a Quinnipiac University Poll of 1,029 Texas voters showed 94 percent support for requiring background checks to all gun buyers, and 55 percent support for stricter gun laws in general in the United States. An October 2017 poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin showed 52 percent support for stricter gun laws, with 31 percent support for leaving them as they are now.

Nationally, support is growing for more controls even from gun owners. A Quinnipiac poll conducted shortly after February’s school shooting in Florida found that 50 percent of respondent­s in gun-owning households supported stricter gun laws, up 7 percentage points from those backing tougher regulation­s in a poll last December.

Nonetheles­s, NRA officials are confident their supporters will stand strong in resisting more regulation­s, and they hope that the massive media coverage expected throughout the weekend will help them spread their message that more government interventi­on isn’t the solution to the nation’s rampant gun violence.

Even as both sides jockey to take advantage of what they think is a sure-fire political shift on gun issues, most officials in Republican-led Texas on Thursday said they doubt sweeping new restrictio­ns are coming — even though Democrats insist the changes will be part of their predicted blue wave in the November elections.

Both sides agree that Texas is an appropriat­e setting for the latest act in the national gun drama to play out. Indeed, in a state where gun rights are as beloved as cowboy hats and chicken-fried steak, Dallas might be the perfect stage for the debate.

In July 2016, five police officers were gunned down and nine others and two civilians were injured by a gunman who ambushed his victims at the end of a protest over police shootings across the country. It was the deadliest attack on law enforcemen­t since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

After the Parkland school shootings in February left 17 dead and 17 wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway called for the NRA to go elsewhere — a demand that Mayor Mike Rawlings quickly deflected, saying the convention had been courted with city incentives three years earlier.

Caraway’s prediction of “marches and demonstrat­ions” appears likely to be accurate.

Texas is NRA ‘stronghold’

On Thursday, NRA officials were putting the final touches on the convention that is expected to draw about 80,000 gun enthusiast­s to the downtown Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, along with thousands of protesters. Media attention was mostly focused on the Friday speakers list that attests to the NRA’s considerab­le political clout with Republican­s: President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Gov. Greg Abbott. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

“It seems strategica­lly smart for the NRA to be having their annual meeting in Texas that is the stronghold for Second Amendment support,” observed Brandon Rottinghau­s, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “Republican candidates will be using this to pitch red meat to their base, and so will the Democrats — and the goal for both is to increase voter turnout.”

Outside the convention center, protesters were prepping with an array of demands — universal background checks, a ban on so-called bump stocks that can turn rifles into rapidfire weapons, prohibitin­g domestic abusers from having guns, raising the age to purchase a gun to 21, additional gunfree zones, stricter mental health screening and even an outright ban on handguns.

“Mental health screening is the basic issue here,” said Houston resident Paula Rector, 60, a self-described “common-sense gun owner” who advocates some new limitation­s on who can get a concealed handgun permit in Texas. “The problem is not the Second Amendment, it’s that people who should not have guns are using them to commit mass shootings. Some restrictio­ns for some people in limited circumstan­ces may be proper.”

That’s absolutely the wrong approach, said Austin sportsman and NRA member Steve Spear, who will be in Dallas — not for the “political theater” but for the massive trade show that features acres of weapons, ammunition and gun gear.

“The Second Amendment says what it says, and to try to start placing a whole bunch of restrictio­ns on firearm ownership just because someone doesn’t like guns goes against the Constituti­on,” he said. “If there’s a lesson from any of what’s happened, it should be that the Legislatur­e needs to pass constituti­onal carry next year. No permits. No restrictio­ns unless you demonstrat­e you shouldn’t have one.”

Getting out the vote

Think again, argues Ann Blanchard, a retired nurse from Pflugervil­le who supports universal background checks for all firearms purchases, including gun shows. She also backs a ban on all assault rifles and militarygr­ade firearms. “We have to stop having guns everywhere,” she said.

Likewise, she and friends who have attended state Capitol rallies in recent months seeking new gun restrictio­ns said they hope the NRA convention will motivate Texans to think again about the issue — even to draw people out in the November election to vote for candidates who support limiting access to guns.

“Firearms are an ingrained part of being a Texan and no matter how much a few liberals jump up and down, we’re not going to become New York or California,” said Neil Reichman, a former Army sharpshoot­er and NRA member who sees the mass shootings of recent years as a symptom of greater problems in society that can be addressed without restrictin­g gun ownership.

“There are several sides to any issue, and this gun debate is no different. You’ll see that in Dallas. A lot of people are going to think they have the only answer to this.

“They don’t.”

 ?? Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press ?? Marilyn and Robert Olliver of Orlando, Fla., look at NRA convention raffle items displayed at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas on Thursday.
Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press Marilyn and Robert Olliver of Orlando, Fla., look at NRA convention raffle items displayed at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas on Thursday.

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