The National Rifle Association's annual meeting will surely be in the spotlight this weekend, as it comes just weeks after the Senate voted down a controversial gun control measure--a major blow to the months-long push for tougher firearm laws in the wake of the Newtown elementary school massacre.
As thousands meet in Houston for the NRA gathering, anti-gun control advocates are poised to celebrate their victory over the legislation's recent defeat in Congress, while those fighting for tougher gun laws could target the event as a way to shed light on their cause.
Retired astronaut Mark Kelly--gun control advocate and husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords--addressed the group in advance of the conference Wednesday. He penned an opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle, welcoming NRA members to the city but cautioning them against their group's leadership.
"The NRA used to be a great organization, and you can still get practical value out of it as a member - everything from insurance to gun safety courses," he wrote. "But those services are small potatoes compared to where the NRA's leadership makes the really big money. The NRA leadership's top priority is to make sure the corporations that make guns and ammunition continue to turn huge profits. Their top priority isn't you, the NRA member."
He pointed to the NRA's big fundraising months in the past year--both of which came after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut. He singled out Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and gun manufacturers, saying they "exploit people's fears" in return for a more profitable gun industry.
Kelly and Giffords, who was wounded in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, have been vocal advocates in Washington for tougher gun laws following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
In an April 17 vote, the Senate voted against moving forward with a bipartisan compromise that would expand the background check system to cover private sales at gun shows and online. A ban on assault weapons also went down in defeat.
Opponents of the legislation argued it would infringe on Second Amendment rights, and the background check law would not have prevented a tragedy like the one in Newtown. The shooter, Adam Lanza, didn't get a background check for those weapons; they were legally purchased and registered to his mother, Nancy Lanza, who was his first victim.
James Holmes and Jared Loughner, the shooters in Aurora and Tucson, respectively, also passed background checks when they purchased guns.
Regardless, Erica Lafferty, daughter of slain Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung, still wants Washington to take action. She's traveling to Houston to try to reach out to NRA members and share her viewpoint.
"I just want to make my mom human to them instead of just another name on a list of people who were murdered. She was a person. She was a great person. They need to know that," she said on CNN's "Starting Point."
Asked if she was nervous about heading to a convention led by people who passionately disagree with her views on gun laws, Lafferty said "No."
"I mean, they are people too, and I am trusting that they are going to be respectful as I am," she said.
Earlier this week, Lafferty confronted Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire at a town hall, asking "why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn't as important" as inconveniencing gun sellers.
Ayotte was one of the 41 Republicans who voted against the background check measure.
Lafferty was sent to Ayotte's event by the organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns, one of several gun control groups using this week's Congressional recess to bring the gun control message to the states.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday indicated 71% of voters were either dissatisfied or angry that the Senate voted down the background check measure, which had wide public support heading into the vote. While 17% want President Barack Obama to continue pursuing background check legislation, 30% want him to move on to other issues. Fifty-one percent want him to do both.
Whether or not Lafferty will get much access to NRA members is unclear. The convention certainly has a tightly-packed schedule with multiple events and seminars taking place across the three-day event.
On this year's docket are classes on handgun retention, defensive shooting, competition shooting tips, firearm law, and wild game cooking. The schedule also includes concerts, a rally with Glenn Beck, a prayer breakfast and an antique guns show.
At last year's meeting in St. Louis, 81% of attendees were male, and 62% described themselves as hunters, according to an informal survey taken at the convention. Nearly eight in 10 said they participate in NRA activities six or more times a year, and two-thirds said they spend more than $500 a year on shooting/hunting equipment.
Just over half--53%--traveled more than 200 miles to attend the convention and see the exhibits.
LaPierre will be among the most closely-watched speakers Saturday. As the face of the organization, LaPierre is viewed as both a reviled and heralded figure in the gun lobby, depending on who you talk to.
One elephant in the room: Will he address recent controversial comments made by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey? The senator from Pennsylvania told a local newspaper this week that Republicans voted against the background check bill to prevent the president from winning a legislative victory.
"In the end, it didn't pass because we're so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it," Toomey said.
His comments seemed to suggest that many in the GOP actually favored an expanded background check system but voted against it for political purposes.
"The toughest thing to do in politics is to do the right thing when your supporters think the right thing is something else," he added.
If not LaPierre, perhaps other speakers may attempt to knock down Toomey's argument. Several potential contenders for the 2016 GOP nomination will take the stage, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin will also speak Friday. The former Alaska governor is well known for her love of hunting and the outdoors. Delivering a rousing speech at a major conservative gathering in March, Palin shared an anecdote about her husband buying her a rifle rack for Christmas, while she bought him a gun.
"This go-around, he's got the rifle, I've got the rack," she joked.
Also on the schedule this weekend will be the installment of the group's new president. As part of its formal rotation, Alabama attorney Jim Porter will take the top spot beginning Monday, replacing current President David Keene, whose two-year term concludes at this weekend's gathering.
Porter has been serving as the NRA's first vice president, and before that he served as the group's second vice president. The presidency, an unpaid position, is the next stop in the NRA's leadership rotation.
-- CNN's Todd Sperry, Kevin Liptak and Joe Johns contributed to this report.
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