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O’Rourke headlines gun-control rally outside NRA convention in Houston

Texas Governor Greg Abbott canceled his plans to speak at the National Rifle Association's convention in Houston after the Uvalde school shooting, but he is addressing NRA members in a prerecorded message.

HOUSTON (CN) — Outraged by the shooting of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texans from across the state converged in Houston Friday, joining Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke in a protest outside the National Rifle Association’s convention.

O'Rourke, a 49-year-old married father of three, opened his speech recounting his visit to the home of Alithia Ramirez, a 10-year-old girl who was one of the 19 children fatally shot Tuesday in their classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

He said he walked into their home to see balloons from Alithia's recent birthday still clinging to the ceiling, and her bed unmade from when she got up Tuesday morning to go to school.

"Her two younger siblings were running around the house, not yet understanding what had happened to their sister," O'Rourke said. "Her paintings and drawings were all over the house. And her mom was right. She was extraordinarily gifted and talented."

The former El Paso congressman noted he had made Alithia's parents a promise to do whatever he could "so no parents had to experience the grief and the loss they are feeling right now."

Speaking of several other U.S. school shootings that preceded Tuesday's massacre in Uvalde, O'Rourke added, "Some will say it is too soon for us to talk about what we need to do to prevent this from happening ever again. But I hope you'll agree the time for us to have stopped Uvalde was right after Sandy Hook, right after Parkland, right after Santa Fe. The time is right now with every single one of us."

Despite the 92 degree Fahrenheit heat, the crowd cheered loudly for O'Rourke and several other Democratic officials who took the stage before he did, including Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Rochelle Garza, a former ACLU of Texas staff attorney who is running for Texas attorney general against Republican incumbent Ken Paxton.

The rally, attended by more than 1,000 people, took place at a park across the street from a convention center where the NRA is holding its annual meeting.

O'Rourke had no harsh words for NRA backers but exhorted them to support stricter gun laws.

"To those attending the NRA convention across the street, you are not our enemies, we are not yours. We extend our hands open and unarmed in a spirit of fellowship to welcome you to make sure this doesn’t happen again in this country. But you need to join us now. ... Please join us now or be left behind," he said.

James Peck, 72, retired from the oil industry, was wearing a T-shirt at the rally with the words, "I Love Trump's Hate."

"I'm all for banning heavy assault weapons in the United States. They do no good," he said. "I was a deer hunter when I was a kid. ... And an AR-15, the bullet tumbles when it goes through the body. It rips any animal apart. It's useless if you kill an animal with an AR-15. AR-15s are only there to kill human beings."

O’Rourke and the NRA represent polar opposites of the gun control debate.

As a presidential candidate, O’Rourke did not flinch when asked during a September 2019 debate if he was proposing to force Americans who own AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles to sell them to the government.

“I am,” he stated. “If it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield. If the high impact, high velocity round when it hits your body, shreds everything inside of your body because it was designed to do that. … Hell yes. We’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

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That debate occurred shortly after a white man armed with an AK-47, who had posted a manifesto expressing fears about an “invasion” of the United States by Hispanic immigrants, drove 650 miles from his Dallas-area home to a Walmart in El Paso and fatally shot 23 people.

Twenty-eight days later, a 36-year-old man shot and killed seven people and injured 25 others with an AR-15 in the Midland-Odessa area of West Texas.

O’Rourke cited those shootings when he pledged to take Americans’ assault rifles if elected president. Less than two months later, O’Rourke, struggling to gain traction in a crowded field, dropped out of the presidential race.

As O’Rourke launched his campaign for Texas governor in late 2021, critics pointed to his comments about confiscating firearms as an insurmountable liability in a gun-loving state where an estimated 37% of residents own them.

But O’Rourke’s flagging gubernatorial campaign got a major boost Wednesday when he confronted Abbott and other Texas Republican leaders at a press conference in the gym at Uvalde High School, as Abbott mentioned mental health problems as a possible reason why 18-year-old Salvador Ramos entered a classroom at Robb Elementary School on Tuesday and massacred 19 young children and two teachers, though he admitted Ramos had no known history of such problems or any criminal record.

“The time to stop this was after Santa Fe,” O’Rourke said, referring to the May 2018 shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, that left 10 dead. “You are doing nothing … This is on you until you choose to do something about it.”

Abbott pointedly ignored O’Rourke as police escorted him from the building. But Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin yelled that O’Rourke is a “sick son of a bitch.”

The shooting has placed Abbott’s record on gun laws and his reaction to mass shootings under a microscope, with media reports noting the two-term Republican governor has not made any pledges to address gun violence as he did after the Santa Fe shooting when he convened a series of roundtable discussions about school safety with shooting survivors, parents, teachers, law enforcement officials and state lawmakers at the Capitol in Austin.

While Abbott signed several bills in 2019 requiring school districts to develop emergency response plans and enhancing students' and teachers' access to mental health services, those have been overshadowed by his signing a “constitutional carry” bill last June, allowing people to carry handguns in public without a license or any training, over the opposition of law enforcement who warned it would make their jobs more dangerous.

Two women hold signs in support of tougher gun laws at a Houston rally on Friday, May 27, 2022. (Courthouse News photo courtesy of Karen Yip)

"Politicians from the federal level to the local level have threatened to take guns from law-abiding citizens — but we will not let that happen in Texas," Abbott said at the time. "Texas will always be the leader in defending the Second Amendment, which is why we built a barrier around gun rights this session.”

Abbott, who received the NRA’s endorsement in February for his reelection bid, was scheduled to speak Friday at the group’s convention in Houston. But he has opted instead to return to Uvalde for another press conference.

A prerecorded message from Abbott will still be played at the NRA gathering.

Hidalgo, the chief elected official of Harris County, home of Houston, told the crowd Friday that Texas state Senator Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, has asked Abbott to call a special session of the Texas Legislature – which meets every other year and is set to start its next regular session in January 2023 – to deal with gun violence.

"If Greg Abbott can call a special session, and a second special session and a third special session to keep people from voting, surely he can call a special session to keep babies from being murdered in their classrooms," Hidalgo shouted, speaking of Senate Bill 1, a voting restrictions bill pushed through by Texas GOP lawmakers last year.

The NRA boasts on its website that its convention features an exhibit hall showcasing "over 14 acres of the latest guns and gear from the most popular companies in the industry.”

One notable absence from the : Daniel Defense, a Georgia company that manufactured the AR-15 style assault rifle Ramos used to murder 21 people in a Uvalde classroom.

Ramos reportedly bought the weapon days after May 16, his 18th birthday. Texas law allows people to buy long guns once they turn 18.

Daniel Defense had planned to showcase its firearms at a booth at the convention but is said to have pulled out amid backlash from one of its recent social media posts that featured a young boy with a rifle on his lap and a  Bible quote, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

The NRA, which says it has 5.5 million members, supports gun rights and the Second Amendment with a religious fervor.

The late actor Charlton Heston, the NRA’s president from 1988 to 2003, had a ritual of holding up a Revolutionary War-era flintlock rifle at its annual conventions and telling the government, “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

Now led by its CEO Wayne LaPierre, the NRA, based in New York since 1871, filed for bankruptcy in Dallas in January 2021 in a bid to reincorporate in Texas after New York Attorney General Letitia James accused four of its executives of stealing millions of dollars from it to fund their lavish lifestyles in a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the nonprofit.

She accused LaPierre of using the group’s donor money as his “personal piggy bank” for private jet trips to the tropics and African safaris.

A bankruptcy judge granted James’ motion to dismiss the NRA’s case in May 2021, concluding its Chapter 11 filing was “less like a traditional bankruptcy in which a debtor is faced with financial difficulties," but “filed to gain an unfair advantage in litigation” or to avoid regulation.

A New York Supreme Court justice in March nixed James’ efforts to dissolve the NRA, holding it would be unfair to the group’s members and possibly infringe on their free speech and assembly rights under the First Amendment. But he allowed the attorney general’s fraud claims against its executives to proceed.

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