Just days after the worst school shooting in nearly a decade, the US is hosting the nation’s biggest gun event: the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) annual convention.
It is the Easter of bullets and pistols, the great congress of ammunition and rifles, the main assembly of what is called “the oldest civil rights organization in the country” that for more than 150 years has defended only one: the possession and carrying of weapons.
It has been for decades one of the lobbis most influential in the life and politics of the United States, but also one of the most controversial: numerous groups point to corruption, lobbying and investing millions of dollars both in personal expenses of its leaders and in preventing the passage of legislation that regulates access to weapons.
This year, a nearby tragedy casts a peculiar shadow over its summit, the first after two years of the pandemic.
In the same state where the NRA has summoned its members to celebrate marksmanship and calibers, to show the latest advances in shooting and weaponry, a large group of families still watches and says goodbye to 19 children and two teachers killed in a shooting .
“All of Texas should be in mourning for this tragedy and, instead, people from all over the United States come here to pay homage to weapons,” Lauren Jackson, a woman who has come to protest against the event with a banner with a photo of her children, tells BBC Mundo. in which he says he wants to see them grow up.
And it is that last Tuesday, just over 400 kilometers from Houston, in Uvalde, a lost town on the Texas border with Mexico, an 18-year-old boy sneaked into an elementary school and killed 21 people.
After the shooting, the NRA expressed regret and sympathy with the victims, although it indicated that it would keep its convention scheduled for three days later, despite multiple calls to cancel the event out of respect for the victims and their families.
“While an investigation is ongoing … we recognize this was the act of a lone and deranged criminal,” the NRA wrote in a statement after the shooting.
“When we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools safe,” he added.
Although there are often demonstrations against NRA conventions, local media estimate that the protests that occurred on Friday were the largest since 1999, when the organization decided to hold its convention in Denver, just a month after the Columbine massacre.
Several artists and some of the personalities invited to this year’s event (including the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott) finally canceled their participation.
Even some arms companies, such as Daniel Defense, the manufacturer of the rifle used in Uvalde, also decided not to attend, considering that this week “It was not the right time to promote their products in Texas”.
But, as Johnny Ferguson, a member of the NRA, told BBC Mundo, it did not matter who was missing if the “main stars” were going to be there: “those of us who really love weapons and do not accept pressure, and our president Donald Trump”.
a divided country
Since Thursday night, in the surroundings of the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, an unusual movement was noticed: police and security agents blocked sidewalks and closed sections in preparation for the great event on Friday.
But the next day, the Avenida de las Américas, one of the main avenues in the city, also became a physical ditch: the metaphor of the deep schism that divides the United States.
On one side of the street, hundreds of people, mostly elderly, men, white and bearded, walked in brightly colored outfits with national symbols towards the convention center.
On the front sidewalk, hundreds of other people, mostly young people of all sexes and colors, grouped together with banners to shout expletives at those marching across the street to the event.
“It’s sad to say, but this is the United States, this divided society that doesn’t seem to agree on anything,” Ashton Wood, one of the protest organizers, tells BBC Mundo.
“It is very difficult, because all of us who are here, both those who are at the forefront and ourselves, believe that what we are doing is for the good of our country, our children and our society, although we cannot be further from the shape,” he says.
Ferguson says that he has traveled miles to get here from Kentucky, that he could not miss it because “there is no greater freedom than the freedom to defend your weapons.”
He wears a Gulf War veteran’s cap and a T-shirt with a sign equating school shootings with abortion.
“I am amazed that people complain about weapons when they kill children at school and do not protest about the children they kill without being born,” he says, repeating the message he wears on his clothes.
“Weapons are not what kill. They kill people, I don’t understand why access to weapons should be regulated”, he alleges.
Renee Harrison also wears a red shirt, but, unlike Ferguson, she criticizes what she calls the “hypocrisy of politicians” who seek mechanisms to stop abortion in the country while “sitting with their arms crossed when children are shot to death in the schools”.
“We need urgent action to be taken. We cannot be the country that prohibits abortion, that prohibits young people from buying a beer until they are 21 years old and that at 18 already sells them a weapon of war, ”he says.
Laurie Fortson is also a member of the NRA and believes that shootings like the one in Uvalde, far from promoting regulations, should lead Americans to buy more weapons.
“In the face of shootings like this, we should buy more weapons“, he tells BBC Mundo.
“It is a way of being protected. I myself have thought about buying another weapon to protect my daughters and granddaughters”, she says as she shows the box to store a revolver.
Robert (he does not want to give his last name), another member of the NRA, says he does not understand the questions after the shooting, because in his opinion, it is not bad for children to learn to use weapons.
“Children should learn to use weapons so that they know how to use them well and when to use them,” he tells BBC Mundo.
“I taught my daughter to shoot since she was 8 years old. Here you see her, there she is 12 years old, shooting an AR-15 and look at the aim, ”she explains while she shows a video on her phone in which the girl is seen with a rifle in a shooting range.
Jam Hatchete, a Vietnam veteran, says he knows what war is, what killing is, and why an assault rifle shouldn’t be in the hands of just anyone, as it can in the United States.
“There are weapons that are for hunting and weapons that are for killing. There is no reason for an 18-year-old to have an AR rifle, which is intended to kill. There is no reason why someone should buy without many controls a weapon that can do so much damage, ”he comments.
Throughout the day, arguments like this are repeated in one form or another both outside and inside the convention center, the same between ordinary citizens and politicians.
In the park in front of the George R. Brown Center, the former presidential candidate -and now a candidate for the government of Texas- Beto O’Rourke called on his followers to unite and take action for “those who will be victims of the next mass shooting.”
On the other side of the park, the great star of the afternoon was Trump, who repeated, however, that the solution to tragedies like those in Uvalde is not to restrict access to weapons.
“The existence of evil in our world is not a reason to disarm law-abiding citizens. The existence of evil is one of the best reasons for arm respectful citizens of the law,” he said.
The former president also questioned the fact that the US “has US$40 billion to send to Ukraine”, but cannot guarantee safety in schools.
“Before we build nations in the rest of the world, we should build safe schools for our own children in our own nation,” Trump said to loud applause.
For his speech, the NRA, which promotes the free carriage of weapons in the US, prohibited its members from carrying any type of weapon.
The Avenue of the Americas, the street that seems to divide the United States in two this weekend, has a point where two equidistant worlds meet again: the corner of Rusk Street.
There is Lauren Sanderan Austin elementary school teacher who has traveled three hours to Houston with her daughter, her dog and a sign that asks, “Will my class be next?”
He’s there asking to chat with NRA members who begin to file out of the convention shortly after the end of Trump’s speech.
“I’m exhausted. There are no words to describe my anger. This week I’m embarrassed to be from Texas and that’s why I’m here, to try to explain to gun advocates what it’s like to be a teacher and have 22 5-year-olds in your classroom and fear that at any moment someone could walk in and kill them. and to kill you”, he tells BBC Mundo.
“Come listen to a primary school teacher,” she challenges those leaving the event, although most don’t even look at her.
Charles, one of the NRA’s “life members” who is attending the convention with his wife, stops.
The two visions that confront the United States intersect in a few minutes in which neither side seems to really want to listen to the other.
The man asks the teacher to arm themselves to protect her students. She replies that her role is to teach, not shoot, that weapons do damage not only to those they killbut also those of us who remain alive.
“Each death in a shooting is a destroyed family, friends, neighbors that will carry a weight for the rest of their lives. It is told to you by someone whose father shot himself in the heart and who has had to suffer for it for the rest of his life, ”says the woman.
The only thing that Charles and Sander seem to agree on is that the United States needs to do something and that massacres like the one in Uvalde will continue to repeat themselves if nothing is done.
But since the two have very different views on what to do, they abruptly end the argument and turn their backs on each other.
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